Hint: it’s not threats and rewards!

The evidence of more than four decades of robust, global scientific research on human motivation shows categorically that there is a serious mismatch between what science knows motivates people, and what business does.

Dan Pink, successful business and technology writer reveals in his fascinating book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us that science has identified three intrinsic human motivators:

Autonomy: The urge to direct our own lives.

Mastery: The desire to get better at something that matters.

Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Ideas about successful management practices are not set in stone. Management, points out Dan, is an invention after all, and the scientific evidence shows us that it is based on erroneous information.

The gravy train has clearly derailed in the global economic collapse, so what better time for you to seek out new management solutions to building a profitable business?

What the evidence shows is that:
  • When the work is largely mechanical and compliance in nature, then the carrot-and-stick style of management has some effect in improving performance.

  • Using a reward /punishment approach in most cases destroys creativity and problem solving ability – performance is actually worse. To put in another way, hundreds of scientific studies over 40 years consistently show that where there is any cognitive reasoning required to do the task well then the presence of rewards or threats has a negative impact.

  • The secret to high performance is to tap into the intrinsic human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.
Let’s look at one well known case which contrasts the two different approaches.

Microsoft decided the market was ready for the online encyclopedia. They employed the right people with the right skills and offered them incentives to develop Encarta. This is the traditional management model. Some years later along came Wikipedia – put together for free, by people who volunteer their input for the love of it because they feel it has value. Game, set, match.

Think about your own business and what you can do to change your approach. Pay people adequately and fairly, that’s a must. Then focus on the nature of the task. If it is merely mechanical, rewards and punishment might still have a place. Otherwise come up with strategies that encourage people think freely and autonomously and contribute in meaningful ways.

One SME digital agency we know gets its team members to take turns hosting regular meetings where they have to present a talk on some new concept, product, activity or idea not necessarily related to their work. Although they normally must account for every 15 minutes, time out to prepare the presentation is built in to their work schedules. They get to freely explore anything at all that interest them and the company reckons that the cross fertilization of ideas has resulted some of their best campaigns.

Forget about figuring out how to offer juicier carrots and poke with sharper sticks. Work with what really motivates people and watch productivity go up, engagement go up and employee churn fall.