Melissa Brown

Melissa Brown

Would you say that most employees at your organization are creative problem-solvers who work with a sense of purpose? Are they also intrinsically motivated? If you answered “no” to either question, your company may be in trouble. According to Daniel H. Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” successful organizations can only excel when both are true.

Unfortunately, most companies still operate under an outdated motivational model called the carrot and stick, or the if/then approach — “If you do this, then you get that.” Good performance leads to a bonus or a raise and bad performance results in a reprimand or getting fired.

This strategy can be effective for work that is repetitive in nature or requires following a simple set of instructions. But it is counterproductive for heuristic tasks that require you to come up with novel solutions to problems. Pink cites multiple reasons why the carrot and stick approach can be harmful:

1. It squashes creativity. When art experts assessed the work of professional artists, they found that noncommissioned pieces were more creative than art that was paid for. Artists felt constrained when their primary concern was to stick closely to what a client wanted so they didn’t compromise getting paid.

2. Good behavior is hindered. In a recent study, two groups of people were asked to donate blood. One group was offered money, the other wasn’t. Those given a financial incentive were less likely to donate.

3. It worsens performance and becomes addictive. When employees are given incentives or promised bonuses to complete a project, they tend to take longer and demonstrate less creativity than those who are offered only control over the project. Those offered incentives are also likely to expect them on future projects and are disappointed when they’re missing. In short order, many managers are left scratching their heads, saying “Looks like they need more carrots.” Or worse, “Looks like we need bigger sticks.” Something similar happens in our school system when children are enticed with incentives. If you want children to love reading, your best bet is to help them find books that spark their interest and draw them into worlds they find exciting. If children are rewarded for reading a book, this almost guarantees they will never willingly pick up a book on their own again. The child assumes there is no inherent reward in learning something new and future effort becomes linked to payment.

4. Employees focus on the short-term and cheating is more likely. Think of the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 or the Enron scandal of 2001. When the only point of working is to earn money or status, employees become short-sighted and are more likely to rationalize unethical behavior.

Pink refers to employees who are motivated by external factors as “Type X.” “Type I” employees, on the other hand, are internally motivated. Pink states, “For artists, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren and the rest of us, intrinsic motivation  —  the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging and absorbing  —  is essential for high levels of creativity.”

There’s no shortage of intrinsically motivated programmers. Don’t believe me? Do a search for “open source” and you’ll find amazing products that were created for free: office suite LibreOffice, Apache HTTP Server, internet browsers Chromium and Firefox, and graphic design software Krita and GIMP.

People who don’t charge a dime for their work are creating products that give their well-paid counterparts serious competition. Around 1995, Microsoft launched a digital encyclopedia called Encarta. Microsoft paid professional writers to create and edit thousands of articles and well-paid executives ran the project. Wikipedia, on the other hand, was created in 2001 by a community of volunteers who saw the merit of making a free, online encyclopedia. Wikipedia prevailed and Encarta was shut down in 2009. Eighteen years ago, no economist would have put their money on Wikipedia defeating Encarta. But things have changed substantially since then.

Many jobs of the past required employees to perform simple, algorithmic tasks. At least 70% of future job growth, however, will be heuristic work that requires creativity and innovation. Pink states that these jobs are best performed by employees who have autonomy, the desire for mastery, and see their work as having purpose.

Most employees don’t want to be micromanaged. They want to be engaged. Unfortunately, the number of employees who report being engaged at work is staggeringly low, while the number who state they are “being controlled” is high. Many employees wish their managers would simply describe what’s needed and let them decide how to get the job done.

When it comes to mastery, most people strive to get better at the things they do. They are also more focused on long-term success versus short-term rewards. This explains why someone diligently practices piano every day knowing they will never earn a dime doing it. Or why someone spends years learning Italian. Most people enjoy putting time and energy into getting good at things they care about, regardless of financial incentives. And when we care about our work, we strive to master that as well.

Type I people tend to outperform Type X because they are driven by a higher purpose. For them, financial motivation is not the primary driver. If they’re getting paid for a job, they want their compensation to be fair and comparable to what others with their skill set are getting paid. But it’s more important for them to know why they’re doing something and how their work fits into the big picture. Even the most difficult or mundane task becomes worthwhile when you can see how you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself.

Autonomy, mastery and having a sense of purpose do far more to motivate than any financial incentive or threat of punishment. While it may be tempting to fall back on the carrot and stick approach, over the long-term, it does more harm than good. Pink reminds his readers, “Greatness and nearsightedness are incompatible. Meaningful achievement depends on lifting one’s sights and pushing toward the horizon.”

Melissa Brown is a freelance web developer and former business professor at the University of Alaska. She can be reached at contact.simpledzn@gmail.com. This column is brought to you as a public service by the UAF Department of Applied Business.