On Leadership

Daniel Pink on motivation

"The way that people engage is if they get there under their own steam, and that requires sometimes enormous amounts of autonomy." (Photos By The Washington Post)
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Sunday, January 9, 2011

The old carrot-and-stick notion of motivation is failing - in large part because it works very well for a type of work that most Americans aren't doing anymore. It's very good for simple, algorithmic, routine, rule-based sorts of tasks: adding up columns of figures, turning the same screw the same way. But there's 50 years of science that says it's ineffective for creative, conceptual, complex work. And that's what most people in both the blue-collar and the white-collar workforce are doing today.

We're not mice on treadmills with little carrots being dangled in front of us all the time. Sometimes we are. There's no question about that. But in the workplace, as people are doing more complicated things, the carrot-and-stick approach doesn't work.

What's frustrating, or ought to be frustrating, to individuals in companies and shareholders as well is that when we see these carrot-and-stick motivators demonstrably fail before our eyes - when we see them fail in organizations right before our very eyes - our response isn't to say: "Man, those carrot-and-stick motivators failed again. Let's try something new." It's, "Man, those carrot-and-stick motivators failed again. Looks like we need more carrots. Looks like we need sharper sticks." And it's taking us down a fundamentally misguided path.

We forget that mastery is something human beings seek because we're human beings. We like to get better at stuff because it's inherently satisfying. That's why people do recreational sports, why people play musical instruments on the weekend, why people do crafts and things.

The problem is that, in our organizations, our organizations aren't really architected for that. If you look at the modern workplace, I would say it's one of the most feedback-deprived places in American civilization. You see this very much generationally. These Gen Y's - millennials - coming in having led these incredibly feedback-rich lives. Press a button, something happens. Play a game, you get a score. Send a text, and a sound indicates that it successfully went out. Then they get into the workplace, and feedback comes in the form of a once-a-year, awkward, 45-minute conversation with your boss. It's a feedback desert. And I think that the more there are mechanisms to enrich that level of feedback, people become more satisfied and they actually get better at stuff. And that has this kind of renewable energy of motivation.

We tend to think about management as something that emanated from nature or was handed to us from God. When, in fact, it's just something that some guy invented. Gary Hamel, the management thinker, has said this very well. He says management is a technology. The problem is, it's a technology from the 1850s. There are very few technologies from the 1850s that we use today. It's a technology that is designed to get compliance - that's what it's for. And even if you sand off the rough edges, it's still a technology meant to get people to comply.

We want some measure of compliance in organizations, but what we want more than anything else is engagement. And if you look at the polling data on these staggeringly low levels of engagement in the workplace, I think it's because we're deploying the wrong technology. People don't engage by being managed. They don't engage by being controlled.

The way that people engage is if they get there under their own steam, and that requires sometimes enormous amounts of autonomy over people's time (when they do what they do), over their technique (how they do it), over their team (who they do it with) and over their task.

There are some very interesting examples out there of some practices that provide what seems to be a radical amount of autonomy as a pathway to better results. One of my favorite examples - and I think in many ways the most actionable for organizations - is what this company in Australia called Atlassian, a software company, does. Once a quarter, on Thursday afternoons, it says to its software developers: "Go work on anything you want. Do it the way you want. Do it with whoever you want. Only thing we ask is that you show what you created to the rest of the company on Friday afternoon" - in this kind of fun, freewheeling, Friday afternoon meeting. It calls these things "FedEx days," because you have to deliver something overnight.

It turns out that this one day of intense, undiluted autonomy - it's incredible, this one day - has led to all these ideas for new products, fixes to existing products, improvements for processes within the firm. One day. And it's so bizarrely radical in that it's not saying, "Hey, if you come up with something great, I'll give you a little carrot." It's saying, "Let me get out of your way, because you're a talented human being and you probably want to do something good."

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