In a blog a few weeks back, I told you of my plans to read a new book — “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink. Well, right now, I’m in the middle of it, and given that its premise is surprising and suggests we should radically change the way we compensate employees, I thought I’d share it.
It doesn’t take long for the book to make its central point. Employee incentives that promise rewards in return for meeting specific objectives may, in fact, have the opposite impact they were created to deliver over the long haul. That is, they can erode employees’ intrinsic motivation — “the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging and absorbing.” The author makes a very specific delineation, however. They are “dangerous” only for right-brain undertakings, those “that demand flexible problem-solving, inventiveness or conceptual understanding.” Research has shown that intrinsic motivation is essential for a person to achieve high levels of creativity. And “if-then” motivators actually stifle that creativity and problem-solving ability.
If we accept this author’s theory, it represents a real change in thinking for our industry. Many of the leading dealers in the industry, for example, outperform their peers in terms of their focus on motivating their employees. But much of this focus takes the form of “if-then” rewards, intended to drive employees to reach new levels of performance.
The reasoning behind the author’s premise is basically that when we see the reward or carrot on the horizon, we tend to narrow our focus and race toward achieving the result rather than pausing to consider and explore all the options to discover the best one for the situation. As a result, those who are extrinsically motivated actually take more time to find a solution to a problem on average than those who rely purely on intrinsic motivation. In an age in which we’re trying desperately to increase our efficiency and productivity, the very strategies we’re embracing to reach those goals may be working against us, argues Pink.
To find the link to the long-term impact on intrinsic motivation, we have to go back to the philosophy behind “in-then” motivators. We create employee “pay for performance” programs because we as managers believe that they will allow us to better control the results we get from our employees. But in the book, Pink argues that most of the natural enjoyment and motivation people have for the tasks they perform are linked to their sense of autonomy in tackling them. By participating in such a program, an employee is giving up some of their autonomy and submitting to outside control, which takes away from the natural motivation they originally brought to the task. This end result has particularly devastating implications for our industry as we work to endure the current recession because, as Pink points out, “As organizations flatten, companies need more people who are self-motivated.”
The story is different for jobs that are relatively routine and don’t demand creativity and problem-solving, according to Pink. And let’s face it, every workplace has those jobs, though Pink argues that the percentage of such jobs is on the decline in the U.S. Certainly, as we have downsized our boating businesses, we have asked more and more of our employees to tackle a wider range of tasks within our companies, meaning more are asked to problem solve throughout the organization than ever before. The performance of employees tasked with routine jobs actually can benefit from the “if-then” rewards that so many of us have become used to, states Pink. And the chances of success can be increased even more by ensuring that employees understand why the task is meaningful and allowing them to complete it in their own way.
Pink is clear that this book is not an excuse to pay employees poorly nor does it write-off all rewards. The research clearly shows that basic compensation and benefits must be adequate and fair for the employee to be motivated at all. And Pink admits that occasional, what he calls “now that” rewards can actually give creative employees’ performance a little boost, under the right conditions. That is, they must be unexpected and offered only after the task is complete. Perhaps best, he suggests, is to get in the habit of offering praise and positive, useful and specific feedback regarding the employee’s work.
Pink’s argument about the dangers of “if-then” rewards takes up only the first third of the book. The rest of the book discusses how exactly employers can create an environment that maximizes employees’ long-term performance. Once I finish the book, I’ll share the highlights of those final chapters, and we can discuss whether this premise has any value, and if so, what it might mean for our industry as we work through these challenging times. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about employee motivation. If you’re a business owner or manager, what has been effective in your business, or if you’re an employee, what motivates you?