Let Go & Lead
Dan Pink Best-selling Author

On Employee Motivation (4:14)

You talked a lot about the gap between what science is learning and what business is actually, and I think we’ve touched on some of that already in terms of the management models.  Are there any others that we should talk about?

The main gap between science knows and what business does has to do with motivation.  And there’s fifty years of evidence in the field of motivation from studies by psychologists and economists and sociologists in laboratory experiments, field studies, that show, pretty clearly, this: If you want people to do relatively simple, mechanical, algorithmic, recipe-based work, the classic kind of motivator we use in organizations – what I call “if-then” motivators; if you do this, then you get that – they work like a dream.  You want people to stuff envelopes, pay them per envelope. For the simple mech-anical stuff, those if-then motivators work pretty well.

The problem is that they don’t work so well once you ask people to do work that’s a little bit more complicated, a little bit more complex, a little more conceptual, that requires creativity.  Over and over again in the science, you see that those kinds of controlling if-then motivators – if you do this, then you get that – don’t work very well for the creative, conceptual, complex work.  Sometimes they even do harm.

And the problem is that most of us in the workplace are doing that nonrudi-mentary, non-routine, more complicated kind of work.  And again, it’s this mismatch.  We’re using the wrong motivational technique for what people are actually going.  And what’s frustrating is that I don’t think there’s a great enough awareness of that.

So when we see some of these carrot-and-stick motivators demonstrably fail before our eyes, when we see them fail before our very eyes, our response isn’t to say, “Man, those carrot-and-stick motivators failed again.  Let’s try something different.”  Our response is to say, “Man, those carrot-and-stick motivators failed again.  Bring me some more carrots; sharpen up those sticks.”  And I think it’s taking us down a fundamentally wrong road, a road that is inconsistent with the science.

I mean, you have these business people out there who are nominally hard-headed:  “We follow the facts, we follow the data, we follow the evidence,” and yet their motivational technique is often based on folklore rather than on science.

And what do you think is motivating them to not change how they motivate others?

I think it’s a few things.  Number one, inertia: this is how we’ve always done things, so this is how we’re going to do it.  I think that’s a big part of it.  The second is that these kinds of if-then motivators work pretty well in the short term.  They at least get activity in the short term.  So if I have a team and I say to my team of five, “Hey, whoever comes up with an awesome new idea gets ten grand,” they’re going to work; they’re going to scurry around.

My prediction is that they’re not going to come up with anything that great, because they’re focused on the money, not on the work, but they’ll work.  You offer me ten grand to do something, I’m there.  I’ll respond.  I’ll respond with activity, but not so much with insight.  And you can tell I’m from the Midwest, because I’m going to use a basketball analogy: that’s a head fake.  It’s sort of a head fake that gets managers going in the wrong direction.

And the third things goes back to something we were talking about earlier, which is that it’s easy to dangle a carrot in front of someone.  It’s easy to threaten people.  Helping people move toward mastery, infusing the work-place with a sense of purpose, allowing room for self-direction, re-architecting processes and systems and even the physical workplace so that people have more autonomy, that’s hard.  And so it’s the combination of all these things.  We’ve always done it; it gets a response in the short term and it’s easy.  I think it makes it very stubborn and very difficult to erase.