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The key to motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Career analyst Dan Pink has been looking at the science of human behavior. Particularly he looked at the impact of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. His conclusion is plain and simple: we are doing something completely wrong!

More than forty years of studies provide us with a consistent outcome. There is a wide range of situations where bonuses and incentives have no impact or worse, they cause the opposite effect. The performance of incentivized people more often than not deteriorates compared with their non-incentivized peers. Apparently, this is one of those situations where most businesses apply outdated behavior. The promise of a bonus might have an impact on routine-based factory like activities. But it actually hinders workers with more complex or creative tasks. Dan Pink is trained as a lawyer and therefore he presents the evidence as in a legal case. Trained as a scientist myself, his proof still very much appeals to me.

From purpose to autonomy

In many corporations the best way to motivate people is high on the agenda. And the amount of hours spent in coffee corners and over lunch on this topic illustrates that it is important to many.  Large numbers of people in organizations agree that existing policies don’t have the intended effect on overall motivation. So most of the times we are doing it wrong and we know it. Dan Pink provides the underlying evidence but he will surprise only a very few people by his conclusions.

Neither is this insight a new one. Many books have been written on how to set up an organization in a way that gets the most out of its employees. My 2iQ library has a fair share of them and it is worth highlighting some:

  • Semco Style by Ricardo Semler has been an inspiration for many in the past decades to provide autonomy to employees;
  • Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux is a more recent book with successful examples from many different sectors and industries;
  • Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet shows that alternative leadership styles can be applied even in the most hierarchical of organizations (her: the US Navy);
  • Start With Why by Simon Sinek emphasizes the need for a purpose as the key requirement for any organization.

What alle the examples have in common is that they have a clear and shared sense of purpose. Based on that, organizations grant their employees a great level of autonomy. Especially in areas that require creativity it is important to allow workers to follow their own judgment on the best possible action. Adding the wrong kind of incentives distorts judgment and hampers the outcome.

Source: TED

Please share your stories of successes and challenges when changing the incentives and motivators in your organization.