On Friday morning I was fortunate to attend a breakfast briefing with Dan Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, in conversation with David Rowan, editor of Wired UK. Dan outlined the premise of his new book – that the current theories around motivation – i.e. external rewards like money and fame, or the fear of punishment (AKA the “carrot and stick” approach) – do not work. And he draws on scientific evidence to support this premise.
Dan is an engaging speaker and argues his point articulately and convincingly – not surprising for someone who studied law and served as chief speech writer to Vice President Al Gore! He states that the carrot and stick approach works for simple tasks, where creative thinking is not required. However, as soon as people need to think laterally and explore options, this approach fails. Offering rewards or punishing people for failure has the effect of narrowing focus, and becomes an inhibitor to success.
This approach will bring about the same result – a narrow focus on doing the bare minimum, sometimes circumventing rules, to achieve financial reward. And there are MANY examples of this in practice, the current financial crisis being one.
Dan posits that the three elements of true motivation are, in fact, autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And that these drivers bring about true satisfaction and will result in higher performance.
Dan’s assertions are supported by other books on motivation and creativity, as well as the literature around habit-formation. He gives the example of a business conference where he raised the question, “If you had $200M and 10 years to live, what would you be doing?” And saw half the audience gazing into the distance, quite clearly thinking about where they WOULDN’T be. This is similar to the question posed in Stephen Covey‘s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, where he uses a visualisation technique, asking the reader to imagine a funeral filled with their friends, family and work colleagues, and then has the reader imagine it is their funeral. What would your nearest and dearest be saying about you?
Such techniques allow you to create distance from your day-to-day worries and plans, and think about what your true drivers are. And for many, this isn’t necessarily about money. Satisfaction comes from feeling like you’re contributing, learning new skills and being recognised for your expertise.
Dan cites examples such as Wikipedia versus Microsoft Encarta. Microsoft rewarded people to contribute towards Encarta. Wikipedia offered no such incentives. In March 2009, Microsoft announced it was discontinuing the Encarta disc and online versions.
The Open Source movement is another example of people contributing their time and knowledge in a collaborative, peer-based environment. Many of the social media tools that have arisen facilitate this desire for collaboration, sharing and connecting with others who have similar interests.
Some companies have recognised that creativity is best achieved by allowing people to work on what really motivates or interests them. The “20% time” given to Google’s engineers is just one example, resulting in products such as Gmail and AdSense for Content, plus a whole raft of products being worked on in Google Labs.
At IBM we use programs such as the “IBM Thanks! Award” to allow employees to give to and receive recognition from one another. This unforeseen and unexpected reward is often more satisfying than the traditional bonus structure and scheme – precisely because it is unexpected. And this is another point that Dan stresses – whilst expected rewards create a certain amount of pressure and aren’t necessarily motivating, unexpected rewards can have the opposite effect.
On a personal level, I find the three areas Dan has highlighted – autonomy, mastery, and purpose – truly motivational.
In a large corporation, trying to find some level of autonomy and ownership is difficult. At the same time, there’s lot’s of scope to find a niche where you can develop your expertise and exploit this to change the organisation for the better. And I feel that, at IBM, I’m fortunate to have some flexibility and opportunity to do so.
How does your organisation seek to motivate you and do you feel that the corporate environment will ever move away from the carrot and stick approach?