In the book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink methodically describes what many of us have intuitively known for some time about motivation. There is a difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and the kind of motivation that companies use has an impact on our long-term job satisfaction. The main premise of the book is that extrinsic motivators, or “carrots,” may increase motivation in the immediate term, but can have two significant negative impacts. First, when people are offered cash or some other short-term incentives to achieve something, it narrows their focus to the specific goal set before them, and often results in less creative or robust solutions. They are so concerned about reaching the goal that they become myopic in their thinking. Second, when some bonus is tied to an immediate goal, we seem to subconsciously classify the work as undesirable. If it were desirable in and of itself, we wouldn’t need a bonus to do the work. Studies cited in Drive illustrate how people that are intrinsically motivated to do a task can lose that motivation when rewards are associated with the work – even if they enjoyed the work before the rewards were tied to it.
While the research overwhelmingly shows that short term rewards effectively destroy motivation and productivity for many kinds of tasks, it also explains that a “carrots and sticks” approach to motivation does work when the tasks are rather mundane and don’t require thinking. Short term rewards worked well in the Industrial Age, when much of the work employees were asked to do was manual and followed a predefined pattern that one simply had to learn and execute. The difference? This work was never intrinsically rewarding to begin with, so there is little risk that the rewards will harm motivation.
Pink suggests that today’s businesses deal with financial compensation by offering enough to take base compensation off the table, so to speak. When employees feel fairly compensated, they will pursue work because they want to, not because they are given additional rewards for doing so. Since the economy tanked a few years ago, though, many companies have been able to under-compensate employees. Layoffs were common, and employees accepted pay cuts out of fear of losing their jobs altogether. This puts many businesses in a particularly difficult position as the economy begins to recover. Not only do they need to look hard at bringing compensation back up to where it was previously, but they also need to deal with the damage that under-compensation caused.
Pink also describes what does motivate us in Drive, such as autonomy, responsibility, room to experiment, fail, and learn, and verbal appreciation. In Silicon Valley, cutting edge technology companies have long been known for what some view as extravagant perks for employees. Google is famous for feeding its employees and providing massage therapists, among other things. Many companies have created “play spaces,” with ping-pong tables, video game systems, pool tables, and more. Automattic, the company that gave us WordPress, has a no limit vacation policy, employs people largely from their homes, and regularly assembles the whole team for meetings in various places all over the world. Other large Bay Area employers have on-site gyms, dry cleaning and laundry services, and employ hair stylists so that employees can take care of their errands while they work.
Many employers still offer none of these types of benefits, but I would submit that the companies that do clearly illustrate their understanding of the fact that our view of motivation needs to change. They recognize that they employ whole people that have varied needs and desires, one of which is to feel valued on a broad level. I don’t know many people that would turn down more cash for the work they do. However, I do know many people that would choose a job that pays an average, but fair, salary and offers them a place to grow while demonstrating an authentic desire to contribute to their happiness over a job that pays a bit more, but doesn’t seem to care about how its employees feel, or what truly motivates them.