What Really Motivates Us?

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You have a task to assign to someone with whom you work.  Maybe that task is producing a certain number of widgets before 5 p.m. or maybe it’s writing a summary judgment brief to file next week.  What will motivate that person to complete that task and complete it well?  Money?  The possible recognition of Employee of the Month?  Or simply the desire to complete the task the best way she can?

According to Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, if the task is more like completing widgets, rewards like money and recognition are the best motivators.  But if your task is more like writing that brief, then tangible rewards are most likely to backfire in the long run.

But doesn’t making more money or garnering more recognition motivate everybody to do a good job?  Not according to Pink.

According to Pink, scientists have long known about two main drives for human behavior:  biological drives and extrinsic motivators.  Biological drives push us to eat, drink, procreate.  Extrinsic motivators are “the rewards and punishments the environment delivered for behaving certain ways.”  Pink refers to extrinsic motivators as Motivation 2.0 – and it’s this “operating system” upon which society, particularly business, has long operated.  As Pink states,

For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve configured our organizations and constructed our lives around its bedrock assumption:  The way to improve performance, increase productivity and encourage excellence is to reward the good and punish the bad.

But researchers more recently have noticed a third motivating drive, one that comes from within.  The reward is simply performing the task.  Those who are intrinsically motivated are driven to complete the task to their best of their abilities and successfully completing the task is its own reward.  This is the “operating system” that Pink calls Motivation 3.0 and it is an upgrade we need.

There are, of course, problems with using and maintaining both systems, although the problems involving extrinsic rewards are, in my view, more pernicious. The problem with using extrinsic rewards as motivators is two-fold: they signal the task is undesirable and they motive but only temporarily.  To continue to be motivated, you require perhaps more frequent or larger rewards.  To take the most basic (and common example), if you pay your son to take out the garbage, you have done two things:  1) you let him know that taking out the garbage is an undesirable task (or else it would have been done without someone offering him something to prod him to do it) and 2) you will never again be able to ask him to do it without offering some kind of payment.  For once you offer a baseline reward, there’s no going back, and in fact you’re likely going to have to increase that reward to keep the person interested in performing.

Two other problems with using extrinsic motivators are that they tend to encourage myopic vision and cheating.  For example, in the rush to complete a task in a prescribed time in order to achieve his reward, a person is likely to focus on the fastest way to get the job done, not stopping to consider other, possibly better, ways of completing the task.  As Pink says, “The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road.”

The problem with intrinsic motivation is keeping motivated.  Pink says this drive is “fragile” and needs the proper environment in which to thrive.  To thrive, that drive needs what Pink calls “baseline rewards”:  adequate and equitable salary, some benefits, a few perks.  When people are not worried about their ability to bring in the means to live reasonably, they are free to focus on their work.

Extrinsic motivators are not entirely without merit.  Pink says such motivators work particularly well for routine tasks that follow some sort of protocol and where there’s little need to make independent decisions, like making those widgets.  On the other hand, intrinsic motivators work best for creative or problem solving tasks, like writing a brief. And it works even better if we allow people involved in creative or problem solving tasks autonomy to reach to complete their projects and reach their goals in ways that best suit them.

Lawyering most definitely involves creative and problem solving tasks.  And yet, much of how we motivate lawyers is through extrinsic rewards (and punishments).  Pink singles out the legal profession as a prime example of a system of extrinsic motivation that inhibits autonomy and thus intrinsic motivation:

Alas, at the heart of private legal practice is perhaps the most autonomy-crushing mechanism imaginable:  the billable hour.  Most lawyers – and nearly all lawyers in large, prestigious firms – must keep scrupulous track, often in six-minute increments, of their time.  If they fail to bill enough hours, their jobs are in jeopardy.  As a result, their focus inevitably veers from the output of their work (solving a client’s problem) to its input (piling up as many hours as possible).  If the rewards come from time, then time is what firms will get.  These sorts of high-stakes, measurable goals can drain intrinsic motivation, sap individual initiative, and even encourage unethical behavior.  “If one is expected to bill more than two thousand hours per year,” former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist once said, “there are bound to be temptations to exaggerate the hours actually put in.”

Motivation 2.0 and its extrinsic reward system may still be strong in the legal field and in many other business settings.  But, according to Pink, Motivation 3.0 – that intrinsic motivation fed by autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose – is beginning its ascent.  His book contains many examples of business that have implemented some form of management that might seem radical as compared to traditional management principles (which operate on Motivation 2.0), but the results have been positive.  At major companies like 3M and Google, some of the most profitable innovations such as Post-It notes, Gmail, and Google Talk are the result of employees being allowed to spend up to 20% of their time working on any project they wanted.

Many of us know of people (or maybe we were those people) who left lucrative positions for what, from appearances, could be termed less prestigious (read “not as high paying”) jobs.  If you ask those people why they left, the responses you hear may likely be that the newer position is “more flexible” or “more meaningful.” Examples like this make real Pink’s theory that money isn’t always the best motivator.  Being autonomous and having some control over not only when but how you work and what you work on can have a huge impact on motivating you to accomplish many things and can be worth more than that extra money in a paycheck.

As Pink says, “[W]e know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others but when we’re listening to our own voice[s] – doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.”




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