How Do You Motivate People? By structuring the organizational environment!

Column by Elena Yang

The first point that resonated with me in Dan Pink’s TED presentation on motivation,, is that there is a gap between science findings and business practices. 

This is the same point made in Pfeffer & Sutton’s book on “Evidence-Based Management,” which I will review in the future, as well as Ghoshal’s critical assessment of business schools in his essay on “Bad Management Theories,” which was the focus on my first post.

So, the notion isn’t new, but it still hasn’t caught the full attention of the public, and definitely not the right kind of management attention. 

The central issue in Mr. Pink’s indictment is motivation techniques, especially the old school “carrot & stick” approach. 

Scientific studies have demonstrated, again and again, that when groups are provided with monetary incentives to pursue a task demanding innovative solutions, against groups without incentives, the monetarily incentivized groups lag behind. 

However, if the task is a matter of mechanistic routine, the incentives do drive better performance. 

The reason why potential rewards don’t produce positive outcomes when seeking innovative solutions is that the groups become too focused; their thinking gets channeled and their creativity becomes blocked. 

The important distinction here is tasks involved in mechanical skills vs. those requiring cognitive skills. 

Such studies have been replicated in different cultures.

Higher incentives lead to poor performance?!  As Mr. Pink stated: This is one of the most robust findings and yet also the most ignored.

So, why are CEOs getting tens or hundreds of million dollars in compensation?

We also need to be reminded, often, of the distinction between “work for the sake of work (mechanistic)” and “work for accomplishment (results.)” 

One of my repeated criticisms of management is its obsession with creating more oversight for people, not necessarily for productivity or innovation, but just to make sure people are not “shirking!” 

Such structured activities are de-motivating rather than motivating. One of my friends occasionally has to go to Afghanistan. 

Whenever he’s there, he and his colleagues work all but Fridays, but then, they live in tents, i.e. their lodging is barren, as well as their local life, so they all end up working on Fridays. 

Here is a perfect example where structure propels people to work, but to what end? I have no doubt that the majority of these people are dedicated, committed, productive, and work damn hard, but for whom is it healthy? For them? For our war effort there? Or for the local government? or population? When people are worn out, not only productivity decreases, creative solutions become even more remote possibilities.

Most jobs, in the majority of the 20th century, did fall into the category of relying on mechanistic skills for which extrinsic incentives did work most of the time. 

As manufacturing jobs are shrinking, jobs relying on solutions that require “out of box” thinking are growing.  

Mr. Pink makes the case – he stresses that this isn’t a philosophy but a “case” – that in the 21st century, organizations need to structure in such a way that people will find intrinsic motivation to pursue their work:                                                       

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose (larger than ourselves)

You notice that none of these criteria are what truly motivate people – you can’t externally motivate people – but are for structuring the organizational environment so that people find resonance to motivate themselves. 

Organizations that recognize these principles are likely to be the leaders in this century. I greatly appreciate Mr. Pink’s statement, “management is an invented concept.” 

Indeed, prior to the industrial revolution, there wasn’t much need for management. And as our businesses evolve beyond the old industrial era, we need to rethink what management means, or if we need it any more. 

Further, there are organizations that are already practicing such principles, such as Atlassian’s practice of “FedEx Days!” 

Employees of this software company are encouraged to volunteer to participate in this exercise where for one day a year, everyone gets to play with ideas of their own choosing, and they present these ideas to colleagues the next day. 

Hence, the “FedEx Day” although the actual coordination is a little more complicated. (Google the phrase, and you’ll be delighted by the read.) 

Essentially, this organization gives employees a day to just daydream, to pursue whatever they like … in other words, to play! What a concept! 

Actually, “playfulness in organization” was advocated by James March – my next entry – in the early ‘70s but even with March’s stature in the management field, the idea was treated mostly with “nice … but …” 

Google also encourages its employees to devote 20 percent of their work time to “play;” I’d say so far, they seem to be doing pretty well, and I don’t mean just their stock price.    

Mr. Pink describes such practice as “results oriented work environment.” As he points out, the idea of “Wikipedia” could not have been feasible 10 years ago; yet, it’s now thriving.

In addition, what I like about this type of intrinsic motivation is that it’s egalitarian; all employees are given opportunities. Why not? Accessing one’s right brain for creative solutions isn’t just for managers or business leaders, is it?!

So set aside some time to play, will you? Encourage others to do the same. Better yet, if you are in a position of power, structure a day-off for people to dream! 

Till you actually do so,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.








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