Sustaining Enthusiasm: Rethinking Motivation

Part Two: What Works Today

Unleashing Motivation

How do you move yourself — and your company — away from using carrot-and-stick incentives?

Pink describes three critical conditions for an intrinsic motivational environment:

  1. Autonomy: Give people autonomy over what they’re doing and how they do it, including choosing their time, tasks, team and techniques.
  2. Mastery: Give them an opportunity to master their work and make progress through deliberate practice.
  3. Purpose: Make sure people have a sense of purpose in their work — preferably to something higher and beyond their job, salary and company.

Autonomy may seem daunting when it comes to practical implementations. Some companies, however, have already forged new and innovative work environments that are generating huge results — most notably, Best Buy’s ROWE (“results-oriented work environment”) program. With ROWE, employees have no schedules and are measured only by what they get done.

Google is famous for its “20-percent time” program, which allows engineers to spend 20 percent of their time on projects that interest them. Google Mail is one successful project that came out of the program.

The Australian tech company Atlassian implemented a similar program, with engineers given a full day each quarter to work on any software problem they choose — a ritual the company calls “FedEx” days. (Completed projects are delivered overnight.)

Creating Flow

People are most productive and satisfied when their work puts them in a state of “flow” — more commonly recognized as being “in the zone.” In the flow state, one experiences a heightened sense of focus and a generally higher sense of satisfaction.

What we know about flow is primarily based on the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes it as the moment in which “a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

You can’t give people the opportunity to create “flow” experiences without providing autonomy, time to practice and improve mastery, and a sense of higher purpose.

Rethinking Management

Intrinsic motivation theories aren’t palatable to everyone. Unfortunately, our notions of what constitutes proper motivation in the office are often too entrenched to be flexible. Some companies have given lip service to worker “empowerment,” without actually letting go of control.

At its core, management hasn’t changed all that much since Taylor and his scientific management theory proposed that we need to control the passive nature of workers with extrinsic motivators.

This doesn’t work for motivating non-routine, right-brain activities required of knowledge workers today. Management, in this sense, is deeply out of sync with human nature — in essence, management is the problem, not the solution.

Rethinking Human Nature

Our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed, to seek out and explore solutions to problems. If your employees are inert, disengaged and bored, something has flipped their default setting.

Many leaders will resist giving up their carrots, and many workers will find it hard to imagine a world without incentives. We’re conditioned to like the carrots and avoid the sticks.

But leaders who recognize the value of, and who can implement, intrinsic motivation can expect a whole new workplace — and an entirely new definition of work. We don’t need better management as much as a renaissance of self-direction.

The bigger, unanswered question is whether today’s leaders are ready to rise to the new challenges autonomy will require.

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