The science of motivation

Three ways to motivate employees, children and other humans

As a motivator, what’s more powerful than money?

Apparently, it’s fairness, according to author and motivation expert Dan Pink. Notes Eloise Keating, in a piece summarizing Pink’s keynote at the University of Melbourne: “Pink said financial rewards is one area in which businesses often ‘go over the rails’ as the assumption is that money is a ‘full-proof motivator.’ But in fact, fairness can matter much more.”

Pink acknowledges that while money is, of course, a powerful motivator, it’s not the end-all-and-be-all. Plus, he notes, in certain cases it can backfire and actually hinder performance. Pink’s point is this: “extrinsic” motivators do work (money, if/then rewards, carrot/stick rewards), but only “in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.”* In their place, Pink suggests that we turn our attention to these three “intrinsic” motivators: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Extrinsic motivators work best, Pink says, when you’re dealing with simple tasks, mechanical tasks (e.g., if you deliver the report on time, you’ll receive a day off; if you complete your homework this evening, you’ll receive extra credit/allowance).

But when it comes to cognitive skills, or creative skills, he says, they actually hurt performance. Of this finding, proved in dozens of studies, Pink notes: “This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored.” He adds: “. . . if-then rewards often destroy creativity. . . . The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive – the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things cause they matter.”

Is your business built on extrinsic rewards?

What Pink finds alarming is that “our business operating system…[is] built entirely around…extrinsic motivators, around carrot and sticks.” Why is this so important? “In western Europe, in many parts of Asia, in North America, in Australia,” says Pink, “white-collar workers are doing less [mechanical] work, and more [cognitive/creative] work. That routine, rule-based, left-brain work – certain kinds of accounting, financial analysis, computer programming – has become fairly easy to outsource, fairly easy to automate. Software can do it faster. Low-cost providers can do it cheaper. So what really matters are the more right-brained creative, conceptual kinds of abilities.”

To stimulate these abilities, Pink recommends focusing on autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy. It’s “the urge to direct our own lives,” says Pink. Adds Anita Bowness, writing for “As a motivator, autonomy is all about our desire to self-direct…knowing you did it all yourself.” Bowness points to Goggle’s famous “20 %” policy whereby employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time on personal projects. Insists Pink: “Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self-direction works better.”

Mastery. “Mastery is the desire to get better and better at something that matters,” says Pink. Adds Bowness: “There’s a certain satisfaction in getting great at something, whether or not it’s practical. It’s why we play musical instruments, learn to spin pens around our fingers, and obsess over the exact technique to brew espresso.”

Purpose. Pink talks about two kinds of purpose, according to Keating: “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.’ ” Adds Keating: “Both types of purpose can be motivating.”

Concludes Pink: “Intrinsic motivators versus extrinsic motivators. Autonomy, mastery and purpose, versus carrot and sticks, and who wins? Intrinsic motivation, autonomy, mastery and purpose, in a knockout.”

* If/then rewards work well for mechanical tasks, says Pink, “where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind; that’s why they work in so many cases. So, for tasks [with] a narrow focus, where you just see the goal right there, zoom straight ahead to it, they work really well.”

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