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Changing the World by Changing Motivation

by on August 18, 2010

As a one time coach and someone who has taken an interest in motivational psychology over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about motivation. Trying to motivate by rewards and punishment is wildly ineffective. Rewards only satisfy, and when you’re satisfied you’re lazy. On the other hand, punishment does the opposite, but also has an undesired result. With each punishment, you desensitize and lead to ever-increasing intensity of consequences. I don’t know much about training a horse, but if you feed it very well after a successful race, or are forced to use the whip strongly with each loss, your horse is either going to get fat or sore, and neither fat nor sore horses are going to win a lot of races.

Dan Pink focused on this fact at TED World Conference in Oxford. In my analogy, the horse you want, is the horse that loves racing and loves to win. The same is true of your employees. If you have a company made up of people who are working simply to earn money or get to a certain job level, they likely will only be driven until they reach that threshold that they’ve defined for themselves. Once they get paid on their level of expectation, they lose their hunger for success and their performance drops. What’s more, they aren’t motivated to work outside of their duties and responsibilities, which is the kind of behavior that can lead to great successes in business.

Pink talked about an alternative solution, sometimes incorrectly labeled utopian (presumably unreachable), and offered some sound evidence to support it. Google’s 20 percent program, which allows employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on anything they would like, has resulted in the creation of nearly half of the products and services they provide each year. Obviously, Google’s employees are compensated well and operate in a highly regarded work environment, which may influence workers’ desire to achieve.

What if the material reward is removed completely? The answer is Wikipedia. Wikipedia, run and maintained by Wikipedians receiving no compensation, no real accolades, just the satisfaction in creating something. In the end, Wikipedia was able to outlast competitors like Encarta, armed with highly-paid employees, because people who contribute to Wikipedia have the intrinsic motivation that comes with knowing that they are creating something.

Of course, the problem with Dan Pink’s solution of giving workers the autonomy to succeed under their own guidance is that you have to be able to identify intrinsically motivated employees. I think ultimately, executives are nervous about taking the leap to groom a workforce filled with these ideal workers. It feels safer to reward the old-fashioned way even though it’s proven to be less successful. Hopefully more cases like Google and Wikipedia gain visibility so that these more effective business practices can gain traction.

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From → USA

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