The Science of Motivation

The information you will read and/or watch today will challenge your thinking. It may turn your world upside down and inside out. It just may make your head explode. No doubt many of you will disregard it. It will be too unbelievable to adapt. A smaller, perhaps smarter percentage of you will see the genius and immediately start thinking of ways you can apply these concepts to your life and your business.

What you thought you knew about the motivation of people is wrong.

Daniel Pink is the author of the best-selling book Drive. It was one of the books assigned to my wife Tasra during her in-depth ChairCo coaching. This book has been instrumental in changes we’re making in our business and careers. She gave me a few chapters to read and I had to keep going. Below is a TED Conference video of Pink talking about the premise of the book.

Here’s the gist: contingent motivators based on rewarding people for certain results DO NOT WORK in most circumstances. There is over 40 years of research from economists and behavioral scientists to confirm this. There’s a mis-match between what science knows and what business does. I strongly suggest watching the video, but here are the key take aways if you don’t:

  • The carrot and stick approach to motivating workers and people works for some tasks, but primarily more left-brained, logistical jobs where there are a simple set of rules and a clear destination. But when it comes to tasks that require a broader point of view and creativity, these kind of motivators actually lead to lower performance. (Make a note all you professional creatives out there earning a living at your art).
  • A group of three economists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Chicago conducted a test with a bunch of MIT students that tested various skills. Three levels of rewards were offered. As long as the tests required basic mechanical skills, rewards worked and led to better performance. But even if the task required rudimentary cognitive skill, rewards always led to poorer performance. In 8 of the 9 tasks, higher incentives led to worse performance. (Are you taking notes? Are you getting the impact of this on your career and business? Or is there a voice in your head saying, “I don’t believe it?”)
  • A group of economists from the London School of Economics conducted a study of 51 corporate environments. Their results found that financial incentives can lead to a negative impact on overall performance.

So what’s the solution? To offer intrinsic motivators for those high-definition tasks. Motivations because we like something, it matters to us, or it gives us a feeling of purpose. Specifically Pink talks about providing people with Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

  • Autonomy. Giving people the power to work however they want so long as they get the job done. There are no set work days. Meetings are optional. And in the most innovative companies like Google and Yahoo, employees get what’s called 20% time. 20% of their work hours can be spent working on their own projects. (Gasp!) Over half of Google’s products in a given year (including Gmail and Google News) come out of projects created during this 20% time.
  • Mastery. Give your team the power to become masters at the craft. Value and encourage education. Invest in their knowledge.
  • Purpose. This goes back to another TED Talk I blogged about. Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle.” Your people need to know “why” they’re doing what they’re doing have a sense of purpose.

These take aways are only the tip of the iceberg. I encourage you to watch the video and ideally read the book. The culmination of these three is beautifully illustrated at the end of the video when Pink gives the true story of a project Microsoft started back in the 90s. I won’t give it away here, but it is eye-opening.

Note: this is NOT saying “Don’t get paid for the work you do.” Yes, get paid what you’re worth. Be smart about your business. But, understand this: if your motivation for what you do is primarily financial, and if what you do is creative in nature, your performance in that area will be negatively impacted.

So here’s the question before you: what will you do with this information? How will you change your business, both for you and your employees (if applicable), to maximize your autonomy, mastery and purpose?

6 thoughts on “The Science of Motivation

  1. Ron, I’m excited to watch this video. One person who I STRONGLY recommend if you’re into this is Tony Robbins. He’s the real deal and investing in any of his programs/cds IMO is WAY more helpful then any photography convention out there. Tony is truly life changing.

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