Science and Motivation

Not too long ago, Dan Pink held a very interesting TED talk on the nature of motivation. The speech is twenty minutes, so I’ll try to summarize. What business commonly assumes about motivation is wrong. Monetary or reward incentives tend to make people think more about the reward and less about the problems they are trying to solve. This philosophy took root because it was great for very simple tasks like the ones  you would find in a factory.  Unfortunately, today we live in a world where the knowledge work to design the factory is more valuable than the work that goes on inside. Providing people with the autonomy to do their own work properly provides much more motivation than a simple Christmas bonus. In fact, the introduction of such rewards can kill the creative thinking they are trying to foster.

Pink’s argument is a great example of unexamined ideas being sacrosanct even in our so-called age of rationality. There was a grain of truth to that carrot-and-stick philosophy, but when held up to scrutiny, its flaws make it impractical. You could even blame the current economic crisis on extrinsic motivation. The financial compensation offered to the captains of the financial industry may have blinded them to the fact that dealing in bad credit is no way to run a bank.

While the focus on intrinsic motivation may allow us to solve many problems, it’s something people have pondered for centuries. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him.” It may be scientifically proven wisdom, but it’s wisdom nonetheless, which has a habit of being warmed over by fanaticism and repetition until it contradicts its original meaning.

Dan Pink describes extrinsic motivation as a lazy and dangerous ideology.  I know he’s trying to make the strongest point possible for a 20-minute talk on a subject that encompasses an entire book, but I can see how his words could be twisted around. What if people start to believe that no incentive is the best incentive? Monetary rewards might not work, but the other three rewards Pink talks about, autonomy, mastery, and purpose still need to be there. Lack of any compensation might interfere with those three concepts. What if we try to apply intrinsic motivation to tasks that are too simple? Can we expect people to follow and uphold the law without the extrinsic disincentives of police and prisons?

Like any other complex problem, motivation is not something achieved through glib slogans and magic bullets. Dan Pink’s research was the result of a lot of creativity, observation and hard work. We can only apply his ideas when we incorporate those qualities in ourselves.