Named as one of the top 15 business thinkers in the world, best-selling author and speaker Daniel Pink recently spoke at a conference about helping businesses influence their employees’ motivation levels.
The science of motivation
“A lot of you have probably been at conferences where somebody comes up to talk about motivation and what you hear is a lot of gobbledegook.” “You hear people say, ‘believe in yourself’, ‘you can do it’. They might tell you about an athletic triumph they have had, or they have climbed a mountain to try to pump you up and inspire you.”
But Pink believes there is much more to learn by considering what science can tell us about what motivates people.
“Ultimately what it gets to is who is the human being on that laptop, on that mobile phone, across from that customer? What is making him or her tick?”.
For Pink, social science research from the past 50 years is a treasure trove of valuable information, starting with the different types of knowledge we all possess.
“Most people’s knowledge of motivation goes like this, especially when it comes to workplaces: when you reward behaviour, you typically get more of it. And when you punish behaviour, you typically get less of it”, he says.
If/then rewards work… but only sometimes
There is a prevalence of what Pink calls “if/then rewards” in businesses, also called controlling contingent rewards, or the idea that if you do x, it will lead to y. But Pink said the other part of the equation is that this reward system only works under certain conditions.
Pink explains one piece of academic research, conducted by four US economists, which found a larger reward led to poorer performance.
While this “seems completely upside down”, Pink says it explains why “if/then rewards” are great for short-term tasks or those that follow an algorithm or recipe, but “are far less effective for complex and long-term tasks.”
“Let’s say you’re solving a murky problem-finding a new line of business… or doing creative or conceptual work – do you want to tackle a creative problem [in the same way]? No, you want to tackle a creative problem with a much more expansive view,” he says.
For Pink, this type of reward system, which he says has become a ‘mainstay’ in modern business, is at odds with the nature of work in the 21st century, which is increasingly complex and non-rudimentary.
But many business leaders and managers continue to apply the same system to “everything instead of the area where we know that they work”.
Re-thinking motivation starts with money
“Money is a motivator… it just matters in a slightly more nuanced way than we think” Pink says.
But in fact, fairness can matter much more.
“Human beings in workplaces … are exquisitely in tune to the notion of fairness,” Pink says.
“So how do people evaluate fairness? Well if two people do the same kind of work, have the same level of experience, have comparable levels of contribution, and one is getting paid a lot more than the other, you’ve demotivated the other person.”
Like “if/then rewards”, Pink says money works well as a motivator for mechanical tasks—“you pay people per envelope you want stuffed, you’ll get more envelopes stuffed”—but it loses its effectiveness for non-mechanical or more complex tasks.
“The best use of money as a motivator is to … pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.”
The three great motivators – purpose, mastery and autonomy
Once money is “off the table”, Pink said there are “three key motivators for enduring performance on these more complex tasks” are purpose, mastery and autonomy.
According to Pink’s formula, there are two types of purpose. Purpose with a capital P is about “making a difference” in the world, while purpose with a lower case p is about “making a contribution. Both types of purpose can be motivating.
“People want to either make a difference, or contribution, or both,” Pink said.
“And so when you’re looking to motivate yourself or looking to motivate other people, you need to be able to answer this question on their behalf: am I making a difference, but also am I making a contribution”.
“The other idea I have for you is to tear down the wall.“See what you can do to tear down the wall between individual people inside a firm and the ultimate customer … [if] you can show people the customer, the end user, that itself is a very inexpensive way to boost motivation.”
Pink says, “Getting better at stuff” or mastery is also inherently motivating.
“We like to make progress … [but] that progress depends on feedback … the workplace, especially in large organisations, is a feedback desert.”
Many businesses still rely on annual performance reviews as the only method of formal feedback for employees, but Pink suggests more frequent and more informal catch-ups with staff to improve a business’ “feedback metabolism”.
He gave the example of a practice pioneered by Australian tech success story Atlassian, called “weekly one-on-ones with a twist”. Managers catch up with their employees each week but one meeting a month is dedicated to a different topic, from what the employee loves about their job – and what they loathe – to what kinds of barriers they face in their position.
The last part of the equation is autonomy.
“To understand autonomy, you have to understand this one word: management,” Pink says.
“We take this word too seriously. But here’s another way to think about [it]: management as a technology. It’s a technology for organising people into productive capacities.”
Pink said management is a “great technology for getting compliance” but businesses of the future don’t need more compliance, they will need engagement.
“We’re trying to manage people into engagement but people don’t engage when they are being managed,” he said.
“The technology for engagement is self-direction. That’s how people engage.”
Pink shares examples of businesses and organisations that are taking this idea of autonomy and seeing impressive results. Atlassian gives its employees 24 hours to work on their own projects that they then present to the team while the South Australian Government allows employees to nominate a ’90 day project’ to work on for three months resulting in awhole host of “local government innovations” that would not have happened otherwise.
“If you give people these little windows of autonomy, you can do some really great things,” he says.