Motivation - an alternative to carrots and sticks


Dan Pink's new book challenges conventional thinking about what motivates us - particularly on the issue of reward.

A couple of weeks ago 300 entrepreneurs, students and businesspeople gathered at Robinson College to hear Dan Pink give the latest Cambridge Business Lecture, says Hilary Jeanes of PurpleLine Consulting.  

Dan’s new book ‘Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us’ challenges conventional thinking about what motivates us at work – particularly around the issue of reward.

Imagine having a ‘Fed-Ex Day’ (so called because you have to deliver something overnight) – one day a quarter when you can work on any project you want, however you want, with whomever you like. This is what the Australian software company Atlassian does and it has led to ideas for new products and resolution of problems with existing ones and their employees love it.

We respond more to carrots, less to sticks, but most of all we do things because they’re interesting, engaging, we like them, we’re part of a community or because they give us some kind of purpose. Businesses often use money as a prime motivator, but according to Dan, that’s wrong – it doesn’t work nearly as well as we think.

Dan points to scientific research on rewards on various continents and in a variety of contexts.

Of course, money can be a motivator. But the most important thing of all is that compensation is adequate and fair. Without that as a baseline, motivation of any sort is difficult and often impossible.

There are circumstances when the traditional ‘if you do this, then we’ll give you that’ will work. For routine tasks which are not very interesting and don’t demand much creative thinking, for example. And Dan offers these 3 pointers for increasing your chances of success with extrinsic rewards:

  • Offer a rationale for why the task is necessary
  • Acknowledge that the task is boring, and
  • Allow people to complete the task in their own way.

The research, according to Dan, highlights 3 elements of true motivation:

Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives (this is where the Atlassian example fits in)

Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters to us (like playing a musical instrument)

Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Dan suggests that the best strategy is to ‘get compensation right and then get it out of sight. Effective organisations compensate people in amounts and in ways that allow individuals to mostly forget about compensation and instead focus on the work itself.’ You can achieve this by:

  • Ensuring internal and external fairness
  • Paying more than average and
  • If performance metrics are used, making them wide-ranging, relevant and hard to fiddle.

This is food for thought in these days of organisations exploiting people in return for a job – such as unpaid graduate internships and British Airways asking their crew to work for nothing.

How does your work provide you with autonomy, mastery and purpose? And if it doesn’t, how could you change what you do to enable you to achieve more in at least one of these areas?

Dan’s book offers some interesting alternatives for leaders and HR practitioners and useful information for parents and educators too. Take a look - you can see a video of Dan's Cambridge Business Lecture here or see Dan talking about his findings here.

Hilary Jeanes is a business coach, facilitator and HR consultant.  She helps organisations to realise the potential of their people.

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Working with you to realise your potential at work by

- getting clear about your strengths and aspirations
- increased confidence and self belief
- identifying and securing your ideal job
- supporting you to thrive and enjoy your life.

Leadership and career coaching for individuals.
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Hilary Jeanes (trading as PurpleLine Consulting Limited)