Author Archives: suesommerville

Motivation: Why Doesn’t Business Do What Science Knows?

I caught up with a friend last night, who was telling me about her job situation. She is on a high base salary and has just been rewarded with a substantial bonus. She explained to me that despite these financial rewards for her achievement, she still felt flat and unmotivated. Her situation got me thinking – if she’s so well paid, why isn’t she motivated?

If you’ve found yourself asking this question before, you’d enjoy Dan Pink’s book, Drive. Pink explains that rewards based on achieving a particular target narrow the focus and concentrate the mind. Sounds good, right?

Sure, if performance is based on the number of widgets produced per hour. Incentives work for tasks that are simple and clear-cut – but my friend is a senior lawyer, so her job clearly doesn’t fit that criteria.

With jobs like hers, which require thinking outside the square and conceptual problem solving, the narrow focus caused by incentives actually blocks creativity and impairs performance.

The secret to high performance in this context isn’t rewards; it involves tapping into unseen, intrinsic drives. A person who is intrinsically motivated to perform a particular task feels a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction from the task itself, irrespective of external rewards. Pink’s research has consistently identified three universal intrinsic motivators; autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Basically, we are most motivated when we are directing our own work, becoming an expert in a particular area, and contributing to something larger than ourselves.

In light of this, it seems counterintuitive that businesses everywhere are designing financial incentive systems to reward high performance in an effort to motivate people.

Is it because it’s actually easier to throw money at people and hope for the best? Is intrinsic motivation put into the ‘too hard basket’, because people don’t know where to start?

I’m not suggesting that money doesn’t matter; I’m convinced that for most of us, it does – to a point. Employers need to pay people fairly to get the issue of money off the table. That’s the easy part, and should prevent disengagement and frustration, but is that enough? After delving into Pink’s book, I look forward to asking my friend if her current role gives her a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

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