Surprising science of incentives and motivation ~ We’re doing it wrong!

Surprising science of incentives and motivation ~ We’re doing it wrong!

Is money an incentive ~ Photo by Joshua Tintner
Is money an incentive?
Photo by Joshua Tintner

Dan Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, presents a TED talk of his work on motivation and incentives. His conclusion: We’re doing it wrong!

Rewards increase performance…sometimes

We believe that if we are rewarded for performance, our performance will improve. The greater  the reward, the more motivated we will be and the harder we will work to obtain the reward. It’s a basic business management assumption.

This ONLY works  under certain conditions. For the broad majority of tasks faced by white collar workers today, the model fails miserably.

When tasks are physical or follow simple rules that lead to a single answer or end point, incentives like bonuses or  rewards for winning a competition will work quite well. That may be because when a reward is on the line, we narrowly focus our minds on what’s important to the task (on the obvious), and that works great for physical, simple, rule-based tasks.

As soon as the task becomes more complex or the rules are not quickly recognized, a reward system often leads to poorer perform. That might  be because when trying to solve complex problems, we need to “look around,” not focus on the obvious–we need to be creative. Under those circumstances external incentives do NOT often lead to better performance. Decade after decade research results bear this “true fact” out.

This is one of the most IGNORED findings in social science research.

What incentives motivate people with complex jobs?

So what does work to motivate us for creative, even slightly cognitive tasks?

Instead of external motivators, internal or intrinsic motivators work much better: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose (AMP).

  • Autonomy ~ Urge to direct our own lives
  • Mastery ~ Desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose ~ Yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves

Businesses that need even modest creativity from their employees should manage in ways that give those employees a feeling of autonomy, the opportunity to learn and master skills, and the feeling that what they are doing has an important purpose (AMP). 

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