Philosophy

What Motivates People?

By Ryan McGreal
Published May 18, 2010

I like to bang on about how people respond to incentives, and I also like to bang on about how the ways we respond are predictably irrational. So it was with delight that I came across this presentation on motivation by Dan Pink.

He reports on an experiment funded by the US Federal Reserve Bank and conducted by economists at MIT which found that motivation is positively correlated with monetary rewards for mechanical tasks, but motivation is inversely correlated with monetary rewards for cognitive tasks.

That is, for mental tasks - even rudimentary ones - bigger monetary rewards lead to poorer performance.

Pink argues that the best way to achieve positive motivation from pay is to "pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table." Beyond that, what really motivates people is to provide a work environment that offers:

Pink notes that management leads to compliance, but autonomy leads to engagement. He puts it this way: "You probably want to do something interesting; let me just get out of your way."

Autonomy plus mastery plus purpose helps to explain why we have the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, database servers like MySQL and Postgres, free encyclopedias like Wikipedia, and other high-quality, market dominating open-source projects.

On the other hand, companies with a profit motive that has become "unhitched from the purpose motive" often end up producing substandard products, mediocre service and unethical or even criminal behaviours.

Pink concludes:

If we start treating people like people, and not assuming that they're simply horses - you know, slower, smaller, better-smelling horses - if we get past this ideology of carrots and sticks and look at the science, I think we can actually build organizations and work lives that make us better off, but I also think they have the promise to make our world just a little bit better.

To this I would add just one more observation: there's no actual employment occupation so 'menial' that it can't be imbued with autonomy, mastery and purpose.

There's no job so brainless that it can't be done well or badly, or so mechanical that it can't benefit from the creativity of the people performing it to carry it out more effectively or productively.

That is, this analysis isn't just for Richard Florida's "creative class" - it's for every employer, every job.

It frustrates me to no end when I come across the blinkered managerial imperative that assumes the only thing workers can contribute to their jobs is to show up and do what they're told. It's a waste of human potential, a needless source of misery and a missed opportunity to find better ways of doing things that honour creative human contributions rather than treating workers as replaceable widgets.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By race_to_the_bottom (anonymous) | Posted May 18, 2010 at 15:43:45

I enjoyed the talk, but I REALLY loved the video. What an engaging visual technique!

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted May 18, 2010 at 18:09:05

"there's no actual employment occupation so 'menial' that it can't be imbued with autonomy, mastery and purpose."

Something that mothers and fathers have been arguing for years, both in reference to the work done by those of us who stay at home when the little ones are young, and by those of us trying to motivate bored teenagers...

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By Anders (registered) | Posted May 19, 2010 at 14:32:46

He doesn't get into why the performance goes down when people receive the biggest incentives, but a recent G&L article) might have an answer. People cheat to get the biggest bonuses, which might explain some recent world events relating to massive bonuses.

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By Light Bulb (anonymous) | Posted May 21, 2010 at 13:46:23

It's an argument as old as Fordism vs. industrial unionism, and one that reveals much about the enforced division between management and labour under which we've been living for roughly a century. Only a century but it seems so much longer!

This video helps explain a significant chunk of what is and has been happening to the world economy recently. We're not out of the woods by subsidizing the traditional automotive and financial sectors. That just buys time as we transition to something different, pushed by informtion technology and people's access to it.

I think we should think of this video whenever some authority talks about the need for leadership and the roles of political and community leaders. Uh huh. And who's supposed to do all the following?

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By Donald J. Lester (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2010 at 14:38:50

What Motivates People? Motivation is very seldom sustained form an external source. Therefor most People are motivated when the find a means, a job that places value to who the are and encourages their skills. Motivation comes from within and when individuals acquire a sense that who that are is being appreciated and valued their motivation grows...and...grows.

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By Simon Geoghegan (anonymous) | Posted May 23, 2010 at 00:43:46

I believe lots of people and leaders in organizations would agree with Pink's thesis here. And even while agreeing, it can be hard to implement the concept if you have never seen it or experienced it. I see lots of well meaning managers who under pressure knee jerk back to carrot and stick (and most often stick). This way of working together has been so ingrained in our systems that it is really insidious (think about school). How many managers have asked you why come to work or what you really want to get out of your work (beyond a pay cheque). There is lots of upside here. Also, love the video!

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted May 26, 2010 at 10:54:23

It frustrates me to no end when I come across the blinkered managerial imperative that assumes the only thing workers can contribute to their jobs is to show up and do what they're told. It's a waste of human potential, a needless source of misery and a missed opportunity to find better ways of doing things that honour creative human contributions rather than treating workers as replaceable widgets. - Ryan

I am up to my eyeballs with this type of thinking on a daily basis and share your frustration Ryan. Too many companies and managers do not realise what the company is. Some think it is intellectual property, or a product, bricks and mortar buildings and assets, but in the end companies are made up of and only as good as the people that work there. Support, encourage, train and retain the people that work for you and most everything else will take care of itself.

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