UAE. For the last 15 years, Daniel Pink’s ideas have been shaking up the business world. He’s written five books – all of them bestsellers – that have been translated into 34 languages and sold more than two million copies worldwide.
In 2013, London-based Thinkers 50 named him one of the top 15 business thinkers in the world.
Pink’s team has developed a set of workshops based on his bestselling book, Drive, that are now being delivered across the GCC by leadership training company Conscious Leadership Consulting and Coaching (CLCC). We sat down with him to talk about the science of motivation.
Q- You say there’s gap between what science knows about motivation and what business actually does. What do you mean?
A- Businesses use all sorts of motivators. But the mainstay motivator is what social psychologists call a ‘controlling contingent motivator’ or what I call an ‘if-then motivator’ – as in ‘if you do this, then you get that’. Fifty years research in behavioral science tells us that if-then rewards are extremely effective for simple, routine tasks with short time horizons. Human beings love rewards - so dangling them in front of us gets us to focus. That’s helpful if we know precisely what we need to do – if we’re following an algorithm, a recipe, a set of instructions.
Q- So what’s the problem?
A- The problem is that fifty years of science tells us that if-then rewards are far less effective for creative, complex tasks with long time horizons.
Q- Why is that?
It’s the same reason. If-then rewards get us to focus like a laser beam. But for creative, conceptual work – developing a new product, solving a complex accounting or legal problem, writing an algorithm rather than just following it – being locked in can work against you. For that kind of work, you don’t want to look at things narrowly. You want to look at them expansively. What’s more, over the long term, if-then rewards deliver less and less motivational energy. If you’re working toward a long-term objective, you need something else to keep you going day in and day out.
Q- Does that mean businesses should get rid of these if-then rewards entirely?
A- No. Not all. What we have to do is make decisions about how we run organizations based on evidence, not on habit or intuition. So we should use if-then rewards where we know they’re effective – again, for more routine, algorithmic tasks. And we should use a different approach for more creative, conceptual tasks.
Q- Is that balance changing – that is, are workers around the world doing more creative sorts of work and less of the mechanical kind?
A- Absolutely. Of course, not in every company in every country – but more broadly, there’s a huge shift underway. We’ve certainly seen it in manufacturing. All sorts of manufacturing work can be done faster, better, and more efficiently by machines. But the same thing is happening in white-collar work. Algorithms and machine learning can now perform many sorts of functions that used to pay pretty well – think basic accounting, basic legal practice, basic financial analysis. The jobs of the future will require high-concept and high-touch skills – the sorts of things that are hard to outsource and hard to automate. That’s a key reason why we need a new approach to motivation.
Q- What role does money play in motivation on the job?
A- A big one. Money matters. Money matters a lot. But it matters in a slightly more nuanced way than many of us think. The key point is that you have to pay people enough. You have to pay them well and pay them fairly. If you don’t do that, you won’t get motivation. Period. The mistake we make is thinking that money is all it takes – that if we get people thinking about money, they’ll perform better. That’s true for, say, stuffing envelopes or turning screws.
But it’s much less true for the more sophisticated, creative, long-term work that many workers around the world are increasingly doing. For this sort of stuff, you don’t want people thinking about the money. You want them thinking about the work. So the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.
Q- Okay. So if we manage to take money off the table, what does it take to motivate people?
A- There are three key factors: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
Q- What do you mean by autonomy?
A- Self-direction – directing your own life and work. In particular, it means having control over the key aspects of your work – what you do, when you do it, how you do it, and who you do it with. Task, time, technique, and team.
Q- What are some examples of how companies have used autonomy to deliver better results?
A- It’s really exciting. There are lots and lots of examples. One of my favorites comes from Atlassian, an Australian software company. Once a quarter, they tell their employees to take 24 hours to work on whatever they want. The only requirement is that the following day they have to show what they’ve created to the rest of their colleagues.
They call these things “Ship It Days” – and they’ve produced a whole array of new products and refinements to existing products that might otherwise not have emerged. Companies like Intuit give their employees “10 per cent time” – 10 per cent of their time to work on anything they choose. That, too, has led to all kinds of innovations. Some places offer ‘genius hours’ – one hour a week.
Or take Zappos. They’ve got call centers, but instead of recording their employees calls and monitoring them, they just say to their people, ‘When a call comes in, solve the customer’s problem. If it takes you two minutes, great. If it takes you an hour, no problem’.
That approach has made Zappos one of the top customer service companies in the world. What we’ve got to understand is that autonomy isn’t an alternative to accountability. It’s a pathway to it.
Q- Zappos recently went even further and introduced a ‘holocracy’ – no titles, no managers, no hierarchy whatsoever. What do you think of that?
A- It’s a cool idea, but I’m skeptical. There are some areas – not necessarily a huge number, but still some – where hierarchy makes sense. To throw it out altogether seems like a big risk.
Q- Your second element is mastery. What is that and why does it matter?
A- Mastery is our desire to get better at something that matters. It’s a fundamental human drive and often ignored in the workplace. There’s some great research from Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile showing that the single greatest motivator day-to-day on the job is ‘making progress in meaningful work’. The big problem is that progress depends on feedback – and most workplaces are feedback deserts.
Q- What do you mean by that?
A- We live in a world of rich, regular, robust, meaningful feedback in every area of our lives – smartphones, games, texting, search engines. Then we stick people inside large organizations and how do we give them feedback? An annual performance review. Once a year! It makes no sense. That’s why many companies – including large public companies like Adobe – are eliminating performance reviews.
Companies are replacing these outdated approaches with things like weekly check-ins, weekly one-on-ones, peer-to-peer evaluations, and all sorts of other innovations. The key is for the feedback inside the organization to have the same swift metabolism as feedback outside the organization.
Q- You last key motivator is purpose. Is that possible in every job?
A- Yes. But we have to understand two different kinds of purpose. One is what I call “capital P” purpose. That’s doing something big and transcendent for the world – solving the climate crisis, feeding the hungry, and so on. But as you say, that’s tough to do in every job. That’s “small P” purpose also matters. That means, “Am I making a contribution? Am I doing something that contributes to what our organization is trying to accomplish?” That’s important, too.
There’s a mountain of research showing that both types of purpose are incredibly effective performance enhancers and they’re essentially free. Managers would get a lot more motivation out of their employees if they had two or three fewer conversations each week about ‘how’ and two more about ‘why’.
Q- This all seems to make perfect sense. So why do so many businesses continue to follow the ‘carrot-and-stick’ method of motivation when it clearly isn’t effective?
A- There are a few reasons, all of which connect. One is that this is how we always have done things. And both people and organizations tend to think the status quo is somehow "natural" and that change is weird and dangerous. Another is that external rewards are easy.
They're easy to structure, easy to implement, easy to measure. Intrinsic motivators are a lot tougher. And the third is that carrots and sticks often seem to work in the short-term -- almost like a sugar rush seems to ‘works’ in the short-term. People respond. These ‘if-then’ motivators cause activity. They just rarely lead to creativity.
One more thing. One's approach to this topic depends, in part, on one's belief about human nature. If you believe that human beings are fundamentally passive and inert -that but for the threat of a punishment or the threat of a stick - human beings would just sit there and do nothing, that takes you down one path.
But if you begin with a different premise -- that human beings are active and engaged, that they want to do good work - that points you a very different direction. And this direction isn't just more humane. The science shows it's also more effective.
Note: For more information on Drive courses and to register for the public courses beginning in September 2015, visit clcc.co/events.