If you do your job and do it well, you get rewards – better pay, a bonus, or a promotion. If you don’t, you get punishments – like a bad review or docked pay. Sound familiar?
The “carrot-and-stick” approach to motivating employees is a venerable part of a manager’s toolkit, and most of us have experienced it in nearly every job we’ve had.
But what if it simply doesn’t work?
Daniel Pink, a career analyst and author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, explores the science behind motivation in a TED talk called “The Puzzle of Motivation.”
His conclusion? Even though science has proven over and over that traditional rewards don’t motivate people, most companies continue to operate as though they do.
The Candle Problem
At the 1:45 minute mark, Pink talks about a famous problem wherein a person is given a candle, a box of tacks, and a book of matches and told to mount the candle to the wall so that wax won’t drip on the table. The solution requires creative problem solving.
Scientist Sam Glucksberg from Princeton University used this test to measure motivation. He divided participants into two groups: one was told they would be timed to see what the norm was to solve the problem, the other was told they’d get a monetary reward if they solved the problem the fastest.
Who won? Surprisingly, the group who wasn’t given a financial incentive.
In a second experiment, Glucksberg divided the groups the same way, but changed the problem so that the solution was straightforward. In this experiment, the group with the financial reward won handily.
What caused the change between the experiments?
According to Pink, external incentives – like cash rewards – narrow our focus on the task at hand. This helps us perform better when it comes to mechanical tasks, but that narrow focus actually hinders tasks that require creative problem solving skills.
Mechanical tasks, like hitting a sales call quota, formatting spreadsheets, or doing basic coding are what Pink calls “left brain” tasks. We humans tend to perform these tasks better when given an incentive to do so, since it narrows our focus on the job at hand.
But those same incentives work against us when offered for creative, conceptual “right brain” tasks that don’t have a single set of rules. These tasks require an expanded focus and unrestricted workflow that allows us to spot the solution to the puzzle.
Glucksberg’s Candle Problem test isn’t the only one to measure how rewards affect job performance in left brain and right brain tasks. The conclusions are overwhelmingly the same: relying on carrot-and-stick management tactics actually decreases job performance when applied to problem-solving tasks.
Extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivations
If external motivations don’t work to make creative, problem-solving workers more productive, then what does? According to Pink, the key is internal motivation, which comes when an employee has control over her own work, enjoys becoming better at it for its own sake, and feels like it serves a greater purpose.
Or, as Pink says: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
In the talk, Pink only touches on Autonomy, the idea that if workers have control over their time, they’ll create inventive solutions that have the potential to revolutionize the organization. Pink goes into the other two a bit more in this video – which is accompanied by awesome whiteboard graphics.
Is he on the right track?
I believe he is. Beyond the evidence he shares from companies that promote a more autonomous work environment, I’ve seen the motivation difference in my own experience and conversations I’ve had with friends about their jobs. I know my levels of productivity skyrocket when I’m doing work for the sake of it, and not out of a promised reword or fear of a manager.
How about you? I’d love to hear what your experience with motivation has been in your own job. Leave your stories in the comments!