Saturday, February 02, 2013

Loving What You Do

In the early 1900s, an American Engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor, invented the concept of ‘scientific or rational’ management. Workers were like parts in a complicated machine. If they did the right work in the right way at the right time, the machine would function smoothly. And to ensure that happened, you simply rewarded the behaviour you sought and punished the behaviour you discouraged. People would respond rationally to these external forces – these were known as extrinsic motivators.

Based on this and other rational theorists, a whole system of operating and rewarding through performance based pay, developed.

Throughout the 20th century, management theorists such as Maslow and Douglas McGregor challenged some of this thinking and as a result companies relaxed a bit – dress codes relaxed, schedules became more flexible and many of the better organisations looked for ways to grant employees greater autonomy to help them grow.

The beginning of the 21st century has provided even more challenge and made us look again at the whole issue of motivation and extrinsic rewards. The development of open source software and the triumph of Wikipedia, the all volunteer, all amateur encyclopedia, challenged the laws of behavioural physics. Developers were contributing and giving their time, not for extrinsic rewards… but were driven by and for something else.

MIT management professor Karim Lakhani and BCG consultant Bob Wolf, surveyed 684 open-sources developers about why they contributed to open source projects. Lakhani and Wolf uncovered a range of motives but they found “that enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on the project, is the strongest and most pervasive driver”.  What drives these individuals is largely ‘intrinsic motives’ – “the fun … of mastering the challenge of a given software problem” and the “desire to give a gift to the programmer community”.

Daniel Pink, in his excellent book “Drive … the surprising truth about what motivates us” goes even further. According to Pink, not only are people motivated intrinsically but that this intrinsic motivation is just if not more important than extrinsic motivation to an individual’s performance.

Pink identifies areas in which imposing bonuses, rewards and incentives can get in the way and detract from (a) people’s enjoyment of the task and (b) their mastery of the task. This is because extrinsic rewards encourage short term behaviour and encourage individuals to perform to the level at which they are rewarded and then no more.

This is a vast oversimplication of Pink’s research but has huge implications for leaders, organisations, reward consultants and even parents – how can we motivate and reward our children so that learning is fun and not a chore.

In cases where extrinsic incentives can work such as in tasks which do not inspire passion nor require deep thinking, Pink offers some advice:
  • Offer a rationale as to why the task is necessary
  • Acknowledge that the task is boring
  • Allow people to complete the task their own way.
For right brained, creative tasks, Pink suggests that any extrinsic reward should be unexpected and offered only after the task is complete.

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