What Motivates Employees? Not What You Think

Register now

SAN ANTONIO-People might think they know what motivates them, but a scientific examination of workplace dynamics reveals several surprises.

That was the message from Dan Pink, author and behaviorist, who said money is not the supreme motivator most assume it is. In some cases, he said, attempting to incent behavior with cash actually can backfire.

For instance, in a landmark sociological study known as the "candle problem," subjects were given a candle, a book of matches and a box filled with tacks and told to attach the candle to a wall over a table in such a way that no wax dripped on the surface of the table. The solution, which took an average of 11 minutes with no incentive, was to see the box not as a container of tacks, but a useful tool. By taking the tacks out of the box, then tacking the box to the wall and placing the candle in it, voila, no drippage.

The scientists running the experiment theorized that offering a modest monetary prize for finishing in the top third of those attempting to solve the candle problem-and even more for having the fastest time-would lead to quicker results.

Instead, explained Pink, the cash incentive stunted the creativity needed to deduce the solution and led to slower times.

After that surprising result, a new group of test subjects was brought in for a revamped experiment. This time the tacks were presented already out of the box.

Money Doesn't Always Work

In this case, which Pink said was a much simpler "if-then" problem, undirected times were faster than in the first test, and cash-incented times were faster still.

"Money motivators work well with simple tasks, but not for complex tasks that require creative thinking," he said.

Another experiment into monetary motivation involved a group of artists. In 1993, art that was commissioned was compared to works the artists simply created on their own. The paintings, sculptures and other pieces were appraised by art experts, who were not told which were which. The technical qualities of the commissioned versus non-commissioned works were judged to be the same, but the non-commissioned items were deemed much more creative.

"The commissioned works had constraints on them, because the people who paid for them told the artists some of the elements they wanted, such as a painting that would go with a green couch, so it took away from the artists' creativity," said Pink. "Art is not motivated by money; artists give the world something it did not know it was missing."

Any workplace involves "commissioned" works, Pink told the audience at CUNA's America's Credit Union Conference here. He urged credit union CEOs to realize money matters, but "fairness" is much more important.

According to Pink the three key ingredients for enduring motivation (as opposed to something jolting that will only last for a short time) are: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy-people want to self-engage, not be managed and not be controlled, he said.

"When asked to describe the best boss they ever had, no one says, 'there was this one woman who micro-managed me every step of the way. She stood over me and told me exactly how to do my job,'" he said to laughter.

As examples of companies that give their employees autonomy, Pink cited Zappos.com, Intuit and Google. Zappos, a shoe seller based in Henderson, Nev., bucks the usual image of a call center where staffers follow a strict script, are recorded and monitored, and are urged to get in as many calls per hour as possible. The rule at Zappos, he said, is "solve the customers' problems, period." Other than that, Zappos employees are told to do it their way and take their time. The company enjoys off-the-charts customer satisfaction, he said.

Both Intuit and Google have built-in time for employees to create. At Intuit, the staff spends up to 10% of their time working on whatever they want. At Google, self-directed work accounts for 20% of employee time, and has led to such innovations as Google News and G-Mail.

Pink said all companies should perform an autonomy audit. From zero to 10, zero being "none" and 10 being "a lot," employees rate how much autonomy they have on time, tasks, team and technique. When the four numbers are added together, typically people who score 27 or 28 are happy at work.

"Bosses always overrate how much autonomy their employees have, and they are always surprised to find out their numbers are much higher than their employees," Pink said wryly.

Mastery-bosses need to realize that making progress is, in and of itself, satisfying and motivating to employees, he said.

Purpose-people what to know why they are doing what they are doing, Pink said. "Task significance is important. Why is much more important than how."

Many of the best companies today have a "purpose motive," meaning they stand for something, he continued. "This is baked into the very nature of credit unions themselves. Other institutions want to be more like credit unions in terms of having a purpose."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.