What really motivates?

In an interesting 18 minute Ted Talk, Dan Pink explains why the traditional, motivators, based on extrinsic rewards and punishments (carrots and sticks) work in jobs more typical of the 20th Century but work less well, and even reduce productivity, in jobs more typical of the 21st Century.

In mechanistic, left-brain jobs, jobs of ‘narrow focus’, where there is a clear set of rules, the goal is clear and there is one best way to reach it, incentives, such as bonuses and commissions can work well. But in jobs where rules and the means of achieving goals aren’t clear cut, those same incentives don’t work.

In these typical 21st Century job, people need to think outside the box and work their way through tasks using their brains. Provided their basic pay is adequate so that money is not an issue, intrinsic motivation encourages high performance: people do the job because they like it, because it matters, because it’s interesting, because it’s part of something important. (According to Pink, this hold true even in poorer economies than Australia’s, such as India.)

If that describes the jobs in your work team, team members need to be engaged and self-directed, not incentivised. Their motivation needs to come from their intrinsic drive to do the job for its own sake. You need to build these three elements into their jobs in order for that to happen:

  1. Automony: the urge to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  3. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Pink mentions the Australian software company Atlassian as a company that does this.

Discussion questions

What are the jobs in your workteam like? Which set of motivators, extrinsic or intrinsic, would work best? Are you motivating your team correctly or are the incentives you offer doing more harm than good? What can you do to make the jobs in your work team more intrinsically satisfying? Are you making the most of the three elements needed to succeed in 21st Century jobs?

In the video, Pink also points out that management is an invention and just because it worked in past centuries, it doesn’t mean it will always work. It rather sounds like he thinks management, at least traditional management (which is fine when all you want is compliance), is a dying duck. How do you think managers need to change the way they operate in order to add value to their organisations (and save their jobs)?

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