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Daniel Pink Dissects Motivation Science

BY: James Baran
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by Mary Ellen Kuhn

Daniel PinkOn matters of motivation, there’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does, contended Annual Meeting & Food Expo Keynote Session speaker Daniel Pink, who addressed a capacity crowd in McCormick Place South on Sunday morning, July 18.

Pink shared statistics from behavioral science studies to support his contention that when it comes to what motivates employees, management often has it all wrong. Scientific studies have shown that if you want people to solve relatively simple straightforward problems, then financial incentives work pretty well, Pink said. However, for problems and solutions that require higher level cognitive skills, more complex behavioral motivators come into play.

Pink shared three fundamental motivators of performance—autonomy, mastery, purpose—and offered suggestions on how to apply them in the workplace.

Autonomy. People crave control over their time and their tasks. “When people have autonomy over those sorts of things, they end up performing at a higher level,” Pink said.

To support his theories, Pink cited a study comparing commissioned and noncommissioned work by artists. The study demonstrated that while the technical expertise was equal for both types of work, the creative achievement of the noncommissioned work was far superior to that of the commissioned projects. Interestingly, however, artists who received commissions that were “enabling” rather than closely controlled also produced works of substantial creative merit.

Also, Pink shared an example of an Australian software company in which creative output was increased substantially when employees were allowed to devote 10% to 20% of their time to projects of their choice. At Google, a similar scenario allowing employees to spend 20% of their work hours to projects of their own preference has led to noteworthy innovations such as Google News and Gmail, Pink said.

He recommended that companies move gradually toward enabling autonomy in the workplace. For example, it might work to try a three-month experiment in which a team of selected staff members are invited to devote 10% of their time to autonomous projects.

Mastery. The desire to “get better at stuff” is “a profoundly powerful motivator in the workplace, and one that is routinely ignored,” Pink continued.

Supporting this contention, he cited a study of more than 11,000 scientists and engineers from around the world. The study linked the scientists’ patent output with a variety of motivators and found that the best predictor of patent output was “the desire for intellectual challenge.”

Another study found that the single biggest motivator for employees on a given day in the workplace was the desire to “make progress in one’s work.” Bearing this in mind, said Pink, management might consider recasting some of its conventional tools such as annual performance reviews. What works better are do-it-yourself performance reviews in which employees set their own shorter-term goals and conduct their own assessments.

Purpose. Lastly, Pink explained the concept of purpose as “the idea that what you do should be connected to something larger than yourself.”

It’s a mistake for businesses to overemphasize financial incentives at the expense of providing meaningful, purposeful work, he explained. “When the profit motive comes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen,” said Pink. Conversely, “When you combine the profit motive with the purpose motive, great things can happen.”

As his talk came to a close, Pink offered this advice: “Don’t treat people like donkeys, enticing them with a carrot and a stick. Treat them like human beings.”

Pink, a consultant and frequent media contributor, is the author of several bestselling books about the changing world of work.