On Motivation

It’s what we’ve known all along: a carrot only works on donkeys. Why it’s important not to treat employees like idiots.

The Daily Maverick recently picked up on Daniel Pink’s best-selling book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, which looks at how the traditional carrot-and-stick motivational system that most leaders use to try and get the best performance out of their employees simply doesn’t work.

Pink draws on years of behavioural research to show that offering someone a big wad of cash just doesn’t buy you the same level of blind commitment and devotion that it used to. While money was indeed a motivator in the 20th century when most work was quite mechanical, today’s worker, who is often employed specifically to think about complex problems and be creative, doesn’t respond to a financial carrot like you would expect. Instead us modern worker bees are driven by autonomy, mastery and purpose.

In fact, Pink’s research shows that when it comes to tasks that involve lots of thinking, having a huge incentive generally makes people perform even worse.Who would have thought? Well it is quite obvious I think, because you need the freedom to let your mind roam, to explore various trains of thought to find solutions. And if you’re feeling pressured to narrow your focus to one very specific end result, chances are you’re going to miss a lot of great ideas and totally choke.

Creativity and innovation don’t work well when pushed. It’s a bit like being forced to tell a joke. Somehow, every funny anecdote you’ve ever known vanishes and you’re left with:

“What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?”

It’s not the first time that I’ve heard about Pink’s work, and while I admit that I haven’t read the book (but do intend to), it is something that I have thought about often. In his 2009 TED talk, what he says over and over is that  “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does“. Even though studies from various institutes across the world keep coming up with the same results, businesses are still clinging to an outmoded model.

Coming across this again, it got me thinking about what makes me want to do things. Pink’s work specifically relates to the work environment where he argues that autonomy, mastery and purpose are the key drivers. And it makes sense. I want to feel like I’m in control of what I’m doing. I like to figure out the best way to do something, come up with a solution and feel like I’m contributing to something worthwhile. When my motivation drops, I am pretty sure that most times I could trace the cause to feelings like, “What’s the point of all my hard work?” or “Why bother if nobody takes my input seriously?”

Probably the worst thing in an office environment is sitting in the office when there is nothing that needs doing, just because it would “look bad” if you left early. Really? What is the point of forcing people to sit in an office for 8 hours a day if they’re not actually doing anything? I am a firm believer that as long as the work that needs to get done is getting done well, then I couldn’t care less what people are doing around me. But even saying that, I am also acutely aware of what other people think, and fear that people would think I’m lazy and avoiding work because I’m not in the office – which shows how entrenched these old ways of thinking are.

Pink mentions a number of companies who are doing things differently. Google, a company that is founded on innovative thinking, employs a 20 Per Cent Time policy where engineers can spend 20% of their time working on whatever they want.

Pink also refers to an Australian software company, Atlassian, who a few times a year, tells their employees that they have 24 hours to go off and think about anything, as long as it’s not related to their normal job. After these ‘Fedex’ days, they present their ideas to the whole company in a hands on event. And they get great results and phenomenal ideas.

It seems absurd that we expect people working with us (or under us in the terrible hierarchy that still exists) to be proactive, creative, innovative, excited (and all those other overused terms like “passionate”) when most offices still run a lot like schools with role call, a homework book and a crochety old spinster keeping a beady eye on everything, ready to give you a talking to when you step out of line. It also seems there is a fear that if you give people free reign, things will spiral out of control. If you tell people they can come to work whenever they like, somehow they will all bugger off and never come back. But you know what? I wouldn’t do that, so why would anyone else?

Sure there are days when you don’t feel your greatest and aren’t fully productive – but at the end of the day, the work always gets done. And if you’ve managed to get yourself through school, university, pay your rent, feed yourself and make sure you shower often enough that you don’t smell like a homeless man’s underpants, hold down a job, pay your medical bills and raise children – why wouldn’t we be able to manage our work responsibilities in the way that works best for us?

People underestimate the power of being given trust and respect. Trust in the fact that you are capable, competent and not a bloody idiot. And it is so simple to implement. You could do it tomorrow. It’s about everyone knowing and understanding what they need to do and when they need to do it by. Simple.

And you know what? If someone who is given the opportunity to take control of their work environment does go off the rails, you probably wouldn’t want them in your business anyway.

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