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The (Surprising) Facts About Motivation

Let’s start with what everyone agrees on. It’s good for employees to be motivated and not so good when they’re not. So the question then becomes, why isn’t it happening on a more consistent basis? In our work with Millennials (Gen Y), Indifference is one of their perceived orientations by the thousands of managers we interviewed. The intrinsic value that drives that perceived orientation is their need to find meaning in their work.

Great! So how is a manager best able to motivate, not just this younger workforce, but their entire workforce? We know that Millennials care about many things which in turn will make the world a better place. They also see their work life as being a part of that endeavor. It’s no accident that the largest club at Harvard Business School is The Social Enterprise Club.

Yet what’s true for Millennials is also true for the rest of us. The difference is that older generations were willing to put up with just working for a paycheck. The younger generation has been raised with an aversion to the exclusive stick and carrot—rewards and punishment—kind of motivation.

Motivation is the underlying reason a person has for behaving in particular way. The default style management has used to motivate their employees is the stick and carrot incentive. The weakness of this system is being exposed by numerous scientific studies and experiments. For starters, if the incentive isn’t compelling it doesn’t work. Not only that, it doesn’t take into consideration the employees own innate interests, how they are hardwired, and drawing on their natural sense of intrigue.

So the question becomes, what kinds of needs motivate employees? What kinds of incentives might a company use to influence employee behavior? What’s the best way to design jobs? Besides compensation, what other rewards can I use to motivate people? And a more basic question is, what’s more powerful, intrinsic or extrinsic motivation?






According to Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive*, there is a mismatch between what science knows and business does. For the most part managers motivate people around extrinsic motivators. The stick and carrot was okay for twentieth century tasks, but for twenty-first century tasks the mechanistic reward and punishment approach doesn’t work. And further, it often does harm!

According to the science, extrinsic rewards by their very nature, focus the mind. That’s exactly why they work in many cases. They narrow the focus and work very well for simple tasks. But in today’s work, the solutions are not so simple or obvious. Often the solution is on the periphery, maybe not out of the box, but at the boxes edge—at the intersection of different fields and disciplines. It might even lie in the processes another unrelated industry uses. (Southwest Airlines learned much about a faster flight turnaround from the railroad industry). The scientific facts are that extrinsic rewards narrow our focus when we should be looking around.

Today it’s common for routine accounting and straight forward analysis to be outsourced or to rely on computers to do it faster and more efficiently. More right brain conceptual responsibilities are required in today’s world of work. We are faced with issues that don’t have a clear set of rules with a single solution.

So a good strategy is not to do more of the wrong things like threatening with a sharper stick or enticing with a bigger carrot. A new approach built around intrinsic motivation not only makes us more creative, but it also makes us feel like we are a part of something important.

According to Pink and other scientific researchers**, this intrinsic motivation revolves around three elements: (1) Autonomy, (2) Mastery, and (3) Purpose. We all, no matter what your age, have the desire to direct our own lives, the desire to get better at something that matters, and the longing to do our work in service to something bigger than ourselves.

Stick and carrot management work well if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self-direction works better. Many studies and examples across the board show that productivity goes up, engagement goes up, and turnover goes down. When engagement goes down, older generations might quit and stay, but Millennials will quit and leave.







Are the studies saying that money doesn’t matter? Absolutely not! Paying people adequately and fairly is important. But it’s simply the threshold of motivation. It gets you in the door. Get the money (and bonuses) off the table, and then start motivating intrinsically with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Google engineers can spend 20 percent of their time working on anything they want. Almost all their good ideas have come from that 20 percent (Gmail, Orchid, and Google News).

Is this utopian? Not at all. Autonomy, mastery, and purpose will win every time over carrots and sticks—in a KNOCK OUT punch. For simple tasks, carrot rewards can work. But for more complex tasks our motivation for high performance is in our drive to do things for their own sake because they matter.


*Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

**Adam Grant, “The Significance of Task Significance,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 2008.

**Teresa M. Amabile & Steven J. Kramer, “What Really Motivates Workers,” Harvard Business Review, Jan 2010.

**D. Ariely, U. Gneezy, G. Lowenstein, & N. Mazar, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper No. 05-11, July 2005; NY Times, 20 Nov. 08.

By Mick Ukleja with LeaderTraQ

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