Drive: What motivates us, and how not to kill it

Imagine a workplace without carrots and sticks. No hands-on control of what people do and how they do it, no extra rewards for great performance, no extra punishments for falling behind. Sounds pretty abstract, doesn’t it? If you’re like most people, you wouldn’t probably bet on this company’s success. Yet when there’s some innovative job to be done, letting people do what they want, when they want, and how they want is probably the most effective way.

In his excellent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink argues that businesses and schools fail to catch up with the changing nature of work and the latest advances of science. If the task at hand requires creative and out-of-the box thinking, traditional management practices don’t get the best out of employees. In fact, they can do more harm than good.

The old school of management assumes that most people would avoid work if possible. If all they’re expected to do are some boring, repetitive and mundane tasks, this is actually quite true. In such an environment, the manager’s job is to motivate her employees to do what’s needed, usually with financial rewards. If there’s no prize for exceptional performance, why would anyone bother to do more?

However, there are vast areas of human activity that can’t be explained in terms of external, if-this-then-that kind of motivation. The world’s largest source of information, Wikipedia, was built almost entirely by volunteers. Hundreds of thousands developers around the world contribute their skills and leisure time to open source projects and share the results of their work completely for free. Thousands other volunteers analyse space photography and data to help scientists classify galaxies or remote planets. Sometimes there’s no reward needed to keep people going. Sometimes the activity itself is the biggest reward.

Classification process on Everyone can participate.

Obviously, not every task is a reward of itself. According to Pink, there are three basic criteria for the intrinsic motivation to work. People doing the job should be given autonomy over what, how, when and with whom they are doing it, so that they can feel in control. There should be opportunity for growth and pursuing mastery, or they would get bored real fast doing the same thing over and over again. Last but not least, they should see some purpose and value in the work they are doing. Increasing stakeholders’ quarterly profits is hardly enough.

Intrinsic motivation is quite fragile and tricky. Scientific experiments proved it can be easily killed with a system of rewards and punishments. After all, if you need a reward to do something fun, perhaps it wasn’t that fun in the first place? What’s more, even the most joyous activity can be turned into a pesky chore if there’s a strict set of rules regulating every detail of how it should be done. You can get people to comply, but shouldn’t rather expect anything more than compliance.

What’s even more tricky is the effect external rewards have on the ability to solve complex problems. When offered a reward for performance, people would do repetitive tasks much faster, as long as there’s a clear set of instructions to follow. However, when the same prize was offered for a puzzle that required out-of-the-box thinking, it actually took more time to solve than when no reward was present. The very promise of some extra money made people narrow their vision and focus on the money so much, that their creativity suffered in result.

This doesn’t mean people are only effective if they go unpaid – there’s nothing nearly as demotivating as not being able to make a living out of your work. But as long as the base salary is fair market value and enough to satisfy one’s needs, offering more money for a creative project will not necessarily help get it done better. In the age when most mundane tasks are getting automated or delegated offshore, the old school of management is slowly becoming obsolete. Creativity thrives best when it is hardly managed at all.

If this all sounds like an extremely Utopian piece of science-fiction, so did it to me. Yet there are companies that already implement this science-fiction in real world. Actually, I only heard of this book from the CEO of Automattic, and after one month with the company I can already see what an amazing culture will grow if you just let the people manage themselves. No, I wasn’t paid extra to write this blog post. I wouldn’t probably want to write it if I was 😉

One response to “Drive: What motivates us, and how not to kill it”

  1. I understand it quite well, because I work in environment, where there are no carrots and very misty idea of stick.
    The salary is the same for every person doing exactly my job in whole country and it increases regularly according to length of service.

    What motivates me? Partly – the sheer satisfaction of doing something interesting and involving, partly – responsibility for doing something important right. And besides there is a lot of social security 😉
    But I don’t think that this conditions could be applied to most jobs.

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