Rethinking Motivation

The question of motivation has gotten lots of attention recently as the changing economic landscape starts to increase the pressure to “do more with less” and the changing demographic places more importance on workplaces they can be engaged in. Dan Pink presented us with a new paradigm to consider around human motivation – one that can help us to rethink our current paradigm and create better workplaces and results.

The current paradigm of motivation emerged from the 1850s management model – “If you reward behaviour, you will get more of it. When you punish it, you get less.” This basic framework for motivation was studied by one of the most influential psychologists, BF Skinner in the early 1900s. The problem we face today is that this old paradigm no longer seems to be effective in helping us get the results we want. Why?

In his book Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink presents substantial research that demonstrates the transition of this paradigm from dogma to myth. The studies he cites show that:

  • If you’re goal is to motivate people to increase their productivity of mechanical tasks (ex: piece work), the current theory (IF, THEN; Carrot, Stick) of motivation holds true.
  • As soon as tasks require even “rudimentary cognitive skills” or become more complex, the current IF-THEN motivational paradigm is at best not effective, at worst, actually lowers performance.

How many of your tasks require “rudimentary cognitive skill”? Given the amount of mechanical tasks we have been offshoring and the increase in Canada’s knowledge economy, I would say the bulk of our workforce utilizes “rudimentary cognitive skill”. One of your emerging challenges then, is to take an old structure that is built on the If-The model of motivation and start to transition that towards one that will be more in time with the needs of our workforce now and in the future.

Dan Pink invites us to consider a new paradigm that may create better results and higher engagement in our individual and collective workplaces. His suggestions for leaders are based on new and more updated research. As you head back to work and explore how to improve motivation, engagement, satisfaction and ultimately results, we invite you to think about this:

WARNING! TRUE FACT – Money does matter. When people are not paid fairly, money can be a de-motivator. Money is a means for people to provide for their family. Adequate and fair compensation is your ticket into the motivation game. What is adequate? You need to pay people enough, to take the issue of money off the table.

Autonomy. If you want the best ideas, high productivity and satisfaction to emerge from your workplace, consider how you might create opportunities for people to do work without constraints or expected output (10-20% time). We need to better balance the need to produce results (Commissioned Work) and to be free to work on what interests us most (Uncommissioned Work). He suggests that a few constraints are important – they provide focus. When too many constraints exist, individuals lose their sense of self and the work becomes mechanical and transactional. Once this happens, you’re likely to find yourself talking about money. Increasing the autonomy in the workplace allows people to align their work to their values and interests.

Mastery: People like to make progress. It is alarming how we have created feedback deserts in our organization. I reflected on this as I was at the conference. I had the luxury of getting a few streams of feedback throughout the conference as I monitored Twitter, Blog Post Comments, and participated in a variety of planned and unplanned conversations. The need for feedback is not new. In addition to our formal processes for feedback, it is time that we start finding informal opportunities to provide feedback to everyone. Some of that should be in the form of a face-to-face conversation. Other times, it can be through other mediums like email, SMS, special events, etc. If we know that people like to know that they are making progress to maintain there motivation to produce results, then it is our responsibility as leaders to give feedback frequently and to create other opportunities for feedback to emerge.

Focus: There is an increasing desire for meaning and connection in the workplace. In the past, there was a clearer separation of work and personal life. With the increase use of technology, our lives are blending together. With this has come an increasing number of hours invested working on work and more and more social connections formed at work. Those organizations who have been able to connect to people’s sense of meaning and purpose, and align the organizational values to people’s personal values have been able to create a sense of “WE”. As leaders, we should be paying close attention to the conversations around our workplaces. Listen for the “WE” vs “THEY” language. It may give you a pulse on whether people feel connected and aligned to your organization’s values.

You can review and learn more about Dan Pink’s work on Motivation by watching this great TED Talk called the Surprising Science of motivation.

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