People often don’t respond to rewards the way managers think they will. This was highlighted in Dan Pink’s 2009 TED talk. According to Pink, monetary incentives work best for repetitive, rules-based jobs. Yet those same contingent motivators (“If you do this, then you get that monetary reward”) often reduces productivity in cognitive and creative jobs. People take longer and achieve inferior results.
As Patrick Watson muses, that’s not what managers want. But researchers all over the world consistently find this effect in different cultures and industries. They’ve put people in all kinds of test situations, and the same happens every time.
The reason, Pink says, is that bonuses, commissions, and the like make people narrow their focus. They concentrate on delivering the results that will give them the reward. That’s fine in jobs like manual labor, certain kinds of accounting, some computer programming, and financial analysis. But that is not what business and technical research and development projects need. In these roles, narrowing people’s focus to get their reward is counterproductive. The company needs people to look for answers in unexpected places. “If-then” pay systems don’t inspire that.
The best-practice is to pay people a fair market-rate wage, and then use intrinsic motivators such as:
Autonomy—the urge to direct our own lives
Mastery—the desire to get better and better at something that matters
Purpose—the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves
Where the money fits into these, it’s part of autonomy. Pink argues people want to be comfortable and independent. Pink says wise employers get the money question off the table immediately. Pay people a fair wage, and then start motivating them in other ways. The solution is not to to entice people with a sweeter carrot, or threaten them with a sharper stick. While that method may not succeed with every worker, employers who try it report good results.
As to why don’t more employers do what Pink suggests? The hypothesis has to do with Expert Blindness discussed in this Chapter. Patrick argues profit-focused executives may think everyone else is just like them: “I want more money, so they must want more too.” But research says that’s not always the case.
Creative people do want more, but not necessarily more money. They want more autonomy, more self-improvement opportunities, and more purpose in their jobs. They want to feel valued and respected. Rewards that are publicly presented, artistic and monetarily valuable seem to work best. Awarding the best performers commemorative gold coins in employee meetings, are but one example. It is something the awardee shares with colleagues, family and friends, and passes down for generations..