In 2000 the startup I worked for got a new round of funding and was growing quickly. I had joined the year before as a software developer, was promoted to team lead and made more money than most other 22 year olds. Much to the amazement of a lot of people I left a couple of months later.
It was not until years later after reading Drive that I understood why. I realised I am even less motivated by extrinsic motivators than most people.
In Drive Daniel Pink goes over the last few decades of research into what motivates us. And as the title suggests, it is pretty surprising for most of us in the business community. Dan describes the book as follows:
“Carrots & Sticks are so last Century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.”
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic motivation
The most important conclusion in the book for me was the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation means you motivate yourself, extrinsic motivation means someone else motivates you.
Human beings are complex
There is one story from the book that has stuck with me all those years and it is about a study done in Israeli daycare centers and the effect of fines on late pick-ups. They were wondering how much late pick-ups would decrease. The result? Late pick-ups doubled overnight. What they found out (and Dan Ariely talks about in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions) is that there are different types of contracts, social and monetary ones.
It really drove home the point that humans are a lot more complex than we think.
McGregor’s Theory X & Y
In the 1960s Douglas McGregor at the MIT Sloan School of Management formulated his Theory X & Y about how managers think about employees.
Theory X managers think that employees are in for the money. Without proper incentives people will refuse to do any work. Theory X managers rely on extrinsic motivation; carrots and sticks; Bonuses and performance reviews. On the other hand, Theory Y managers think that employees are ambitious and self-motivated. That they want to achieve great things. Those managers try to foster intrinsic motivation. They explain the Why behind the organisations; they inspire people to do their greatest work and help remove barriers to do that.
The problem is that the carrots & sticks destroy intrinsic motivation. So both managers will see evidence they are right.
The problem is that for all but the most manual tasks, extrinsic motivation does not help. In fact, there is evidence that is actually destroys performance in most circumstances.
So how can do we do intrinsic motivation right?
In Drive, Daniel Pink describes 3 elements of an environment where intrinsic motivation can flourish. They are autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Autonomy: “freedom from external control or influence; independence.”.
It is hard to quantify how autonomous we are at work. But if we break it down into the 4 Ts it becomes abundantly clear we usually are not:
When do you work? In most organisations you are still expected to work 9 to 5. Sometimes it is the slightly more flexible 8-10 to 4-6. ROWE (Results Only Workplace Environment) is mainly aimed at increase time-independency.
As knowledge workers we usually have some control over how we solve the problem. But in most instances there are also plenty of policies, processes, procedures, checklists and mandatory tools that get in the way.
Can you pick your own team to work with? Can you pick who you work with? What team you will be on? Iwein Fuld wrote up a detailed post on how they decide to create a new team where they left it up to the team to decide which team to join.
One of the most scary things for a manager to delegate is what an employee will be working on. The fear is that people either won’t work on anything at all, or otherwise only on things that they want, not necessary what is good for the company.
Companies like WL. Gore & Associates (profile) and Github (profile) are proof that we might have to revisit that theory.
Most people love getting better at things. They love a challenge and figuring it out by themselves. The psychologist with the most different to pronounce name Mihály Csíkszentmihályi researched what he calls Flow. Flow is that state you are in when you are completely concentrated on a task and completely forget time. It turns out you are both performing and learning at extreme levels. So how to do get into flow? Goldilock challenges.
If the challenge is proportionate to the skills that you have you can experience flow. If something is too hard you will be anxious, if it is too easy you will be bored. This does mean that you have to keep adapting the challenge level because you will be learning quite a bit.
Unfortunately that does not happen often in organisations. Most people are trained to do a job and are then expected to keep doing that for a few years, possibly forever.
Or we are thrown into a completely new situation or buried under an impossible workload and anxiety is the result.
Why does your company do what it does? And don’t say make a profit or deliver shareholder value. That doesn’t count. What would society miss when your company is not around? Get people excited about that. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Simon Sinek has a good book out on the topic: Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action and a brilliant TEDx talk.
If we really want to get the best out of our people we have to radically rethink the way we manage people. We have to move from a mindset of external motivators to fostering an environment where people can be self-motivated. That is done through autonomy, mastery and purpose.
This is not to say that money is not important. People need money to pay the rent, feed their family and send their kids to college. We do need to pay enough money so that money isn’t a blocker. After that we are much better off fostering intrinsic motivation.
Go buy this book, it is one of the classics in Creative Economy thinking. For the visual learners amongst us, here is a great video that explains the book in detail.