Rethink Motivation

By: Samantha Whitehorne

If you think that money and other external rewards are the only way to motivate yourself, your staff, and even your members, it's time for a change. Bestselling author Daniel Pink talks about how associations can make the most of the new elements of motivation: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. (Titled "Time to Dump the Carrots and Sticks" in print version.)

How many times have you sat at your desk, doing something you'd rather not, thinking a raise or bonus would make everything so much better? How many times have you thought that raise or bonus might actually hinder your performance? The answer to the second question is probably a much smaller number, but scientific data show this may be the case when it comes to certain tasks.

Daniel Pink, author of the bestseller A Whole New Mind and the new book Drive, says the key to high performance and satisfaction isn't about money; it's about internal motivation, what he calls Motivation 3.0. Associations Now talked to Pink about why motivation has changed, why old motivators won't work, and how associations can make the most of this new environment.

Associations Now: What do you think has changed to move us from Motivation 1.0 to 2.0 to now 3.0?

Daniel Pink: The move from 1.0 to 2.0 happened a long time ago. That was basically the result of societies and economies becoming more complex. It wasn't merely about human motivation; it wasn't merely about survival. The shift from 2.0 to 3.0 was actually more recent, and at least to me, more interesting.

It has to do with changes in how people work and how they organize work—everything from people working by themselves, working as free agents, working in open source. It has to do with how we structure businesses and business models.

Open source is a very powerful business model that would have seemed almost impossible even 15 or 25 years ago, and it's challenging big for-profit companies. … I think what's interesting is that the open-source model and associations have a huge amount in common in that they're purpose driven. People aren't doing it for money, and it's very collaborative.

Also, the other thing that changed is what people are doing at work. We're doing less of the routine, rule-based algorithmic work, whether that means turning the same screw the same way over and over again on an assembly line or even adding up columns of figures over and over again. The vast majority of white-collar work and even much of blue-collar work today requires much more conceptual thinking, much more creativity. And the science is very, very clear that traditional mechanisms of carrot-and-stick, if-then motivators [i.e., "If you do this, then you get that"] don't work for creative, conceptual tasks.

Can you talk a little bit about why those carrots and sticks don't work for creative tasks?

One reason they don't work for creative tasks very well is that they work so well for noncreative tasks. Because what those if-then motivators do is that they focus our attention and they concentrate the mind. And so if you say to me, "Dan, I'll give you $500 to do something," you have my attention. I'm completely focused on that task. And I'm thinking, "What does she want me to do?" Because I'm going to do that.

Now, that's very good if you want people to carry out a prescribed set of instructions, because it focuses our attention in a very narrow way. That's actually very helpful in certain ways. If you're stuffing envelopes, just focusing on stuffing envelopes, you'll get it done faster. If you're processing something on an assembly line, focusing on that one particular task will allow you to get it done faster.

The problem is that for creative conceptual tasks, you don't want a narrow focus. You want a wide focus. If you have a narrow focus, you're not going to have a solution to a problem. You're not going to make anything close to a conceptual breakthrough.

Why do you think organizations continue to operate under the old assumption of carrots and sticks?

I think there's actually a mix of reasons for that. One of them has to do with the fact that these if-then motivators have worked for a long time. The other thing about it, which I think is an even somewhat harder problem to solve, is that they work, or at least they seem to work, in the short term.

For example, say an executive director of an association says to her staff, "We need to come up with a new idea for recruiting members, and I'll give whoever comes up with the best idea a $2,500 bonus." I can guarantee that that executive director's staff is going to start scurrying with activity. And so that executive director says,

"Oh, look what a great leader I am. Everybody's working so hard."

The problem is that you've fostered activity, but you haven't fostered any kind of creative thinking. These if-then rewards actually deliver either results or the appearance of results in the short term, so that fakes us out.

And the other reason organizations continue to use them is that they're easy. If you talk about the elements of Motivation 3.0—fostering a sense of autonomy, helping people move toward mastery and progress, plugging them into a purpose larger than themselves—that's hard. Saying whoever comes up with a good idea gets $2,000 is pretty easy. It makes them kind of a stubborn stain to get out.

Is there any way to combine intrinsic rewards with carrots and sticks, or is it one or the other?

"The open-source model and associations have a huge amount in common. People aren't doing it for money, and it's very collaborative."    
—Daniel Pink

Yes, but I think we have to be very careful. And here is where the difference in the two main types of rewards really comes in. The first type is the if-then rewards that I talked about already.

However, there's another kind of reward that is noncontingent and given after the fact, which is what I call a now-that reward [i.e., "Now that you've done such a great job, here's some recognition."].

They're not perfect, but nothing is perfect. Let's go back to that example of the executive director. I just don't think her offering $2,500 to her staff member who comes up with the best idea is going to work. I really think you're going to get lesser ideas. I think you're not going to have collaboration if it's an individual incentive. I think that you're going to have people focused on how to get $2,500 rather than on how to do something amazing.

However, if she were to say to her staff, "Hey, we really have to come up with something new for recruiting members. I think it can really play a big role in our organization. And I think you folks have the capacity and the talent and the drive to really come up with something great. So why don't you take the next month or so and try to come up with some great ideas. Organize it the way that you want. … I'm here to help you, give you resources and feedback, and whatnot."

Then, if those people do come up with an awesome idea, after the fact she could say, "Now that you've come up with this breakthrough idea, thanks." I mean, I think thank you is a pretty important form of feedback. She could then recognize them in front of the rest of the staff, or recognize them individually. She could even offer a small cash bonus.

Because it's after the fact, it's not trying to control their behavior; it's a form of recognition and a form of feedback, and it's far less corrosive. So I think that's a way to combine it. The danger is that if you start doing that, some people will expect a now-that reward every time they lift a finger. And then it becomes a little bit more corrosive.

What can associations that may not have a lot of money do when it comes to rewards?

In some cases, we really overlook the importance of things like feedback and information as being really vital. There's an interesting piece of research in the current [January-February 2010] Harvard Business Review that talks about the top motivator for people at work is a sense of making progress. And I think this is where associations can be a leader. We all know you're not swimming in cash. It's not like associations are Goldman Sachs, and they can just reach into this giant pile of money hidden in a basement and give people a $400,000 bonus.

They have to be much more creative about it. And so even things like recognizing progress, going to someone on your staff and saying, "Wow, you've actually made some good progress. Thanks." I think that's really powerful, and I think those are the sorts of things that associations have to do. Because associations, for better or worse, have a lot fewer carrots than for-profit organizations.

Going back to something you were talking about earlier, how can associations benefit from Motivation 3.0 and its elements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

I think that Motivation 3.0 applies with pretty good force to associations. And associations in some ways are different from for-profit companies because they have staff and members and volunteers. … But there's also some opportunities to involve members as volunteers by allowing them to direct the volunteer activity a little bit—having them figure out what they want to do or suggest what they want to do and how they want to do it.

You can build participation among volunteers by providing the volunteers themselves autonomy rather than saying, "We need people to do X, Y, and Z, and whoever wants to can sign up." By pushing some of the decision to the volunteers or members themselves, you might be able to get a fuller, robust sense of participation.

The other thing where associations have a very powerful advantage is on purpose, in that associations have a purpose baked right in—to advance a cause, to advance a profession, to advance an industry. And I think in many ways, the one thing that for-profit companies often struggle with is this: How do you find that sense of purpose beyond boosting quarterly returns? That's not the kind of rallying cry that gets great people to wake up in the morning and race to work to do something amazing. I do think that associations have a fighting chance in that regard, because they want to bring to light the great things that their industry is doing. They want to build a community of people who are intensely interested in this topic or this cause or this profession or this industry. And then for-profit companies begin looking at associations for hints about how to run their operations better.

We always talk about how associations need to be more businesslike. But I think the curious flip that's going on now is that some professions have to think or some for-profit companies have to look at what associations are doing and say, "How do we galvanize people with a higher purpose? How do we engage and recognize employees?"

As an association leader, how can you create a more Motivation 3.0 environment for the people you manage and for your organization as a whole?
I think it dovetails with what we were talking about before. I think it's looking at your staff and saying, "How much autonomy do these folks really have?" You have to look at it in a hardheaded way on the four dimensions of time, technique, team, and task.

Organization leaders need to say, "How much time in the last week have I spent helping identify progress people are making, helping recognize and celebrate progress that people are making?" My hunch is that the answer to that is going to be very, very little. And even upping that a little bit can be really powerful.

The other thing is to make sure that your organization is aligned along a common purpose. Not an elaborate mission statement, but a single purpose so people know why they're there. And there are some more tactical things that associations can do. For instance, I think every organization should try a FedEx day, like this company Atlassian that I write about. This is where people can spend one day working on whatever they want … and then [they] show the results to the rest of the team at the end of 24 hours. I think that would offer a slew of new ideas for associations.  

Daniel Pink is author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He will be the closing general session speaker at this month's Great Ideas Conference at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.

Samantha Whitehorne is managing editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Online Extra: Moving from Type X to Type I

Associations Now: Can you talk about some small steps that a person can take to move from a Type X to a Type I?

Daniel Pink: To start off with, it's important to remember that these are just two groupings of behavior. Type X behavior is more extrinsically motivated than intrinsically motivated. Type I behavior is more intrinsically motivated than extrinsically motivated.

And again, the way that we move from Type X to Type I is by tapping these three elements of Motivation 3.0 [autonomy, mastery, and purpose]. And so for an individual, it's figuring out some ways to sculpt your job to provide a greater sense of autonomy. That can help you move in the direction [of Type I]. On mastery, it is things like people doing their own performance reviews. I think that's a powerful technique for people moving more and more toward mastery.

On autonomy, there are some questions you can ask. [You have] to think very hard about how much control you have. For example, take a week and write down what you're doing and say, "OK, how much control do I really have over my time? How much control do I have over my technique? How much control do I really have over my team?" And give yourself kind of an assessment in that way.

On purpose, there are all kinds of really interesting things that individuals can do. One of my favorite is for people to ask themselves what their sentence is. What's the one sentence that they want to describe them? Then they should also ask themselves at the end of each day, "Was I better today than yesterday?"  I think that combination of questions is really powerful.

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.