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Rethinking Motivation

Businesses have fallen behind what science now knows about motivation. But some businesses are catching up. For example, hospitals find it hard to keep teams of quality nurses. First, there is a chronic shortage of nurses to meet the demand. Second, nurses work in conditions of high stress. Georgetown University Hospital is one of a growing number of hospitals that invests money in improving the work environment of its nurses. While many hospitals used to give signing bonuses to get nurses to work for them, the new approach is give nurses more autonomy in doing their jobs, and offer them more opportunity to grow and develop their skills. Now they are motivated to stay on the job and to provide higher levels of patient care, while previously they were motivated to stay just long enough to receive their incentive.1

Despite the success of Georgetown Hospital and others like it, most companies are mired in human resource systems that are not "motivating." It doesn't have to be that way. Research points to ways to make work more productive.

Daniel Pink frames the issue of motivation as akin to an operating system: "a set of mostly invisible instructions and protocols on which everything runs."2 The business world, according to Pink, is stuck in Motivation 2.0 when it comes to our human operating system. Motivation 2.0 operates on the premise that people are driven by external rewards and only respond to punishment as a way to stop unwanted behaviors. A strong corollary to this premise is that workers will avoid working unless supervised closely. However, empirical studies have consistently disproven Motivation 2.0, yet it persists as the dominant human system in business practice.

According to a healthy body of research, there are several problems with Motivation 2.0 — or "if-then" reward protocols. First, they don't work very well. In situations that require creativity or even rudimentary cognitive ability, they have been found to actually lead to poorer results. Second, they turn play into work. That is, they are likely to take something that was once enjoyable on its own merits—intrinsic—and make it transactional based on some external take-away (e.g., design a campaign because of the work vs. design it because of the reward). Third, in the cases where rewards do seem to work—routine tasks that have a clear repeatable procedure— they have short-term effect and end up being quite expensive. Psychologists, sociologists and economists since the 1960s have replicated these findings over and over and over again, often in direct conflict with their own hypotheses.

Pink urges managers to upgrade their human operating systems to Motivation 3.0, which takes external rewards out of the equation, allowing people to focus on the work. The key is to get beyond money and focus on factors that really motivate people: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Here is a brief description of each of these three elements:

  • Autonomy. Humans naturally like to be self-directed, and management often gets in people's way of performing well. Smart managers use tools like policy, where expectations for results are detailed and authority is delegated can help managers encourage autonomy. At Georgetown University Hospital, nurses are encouraged to conduct research that can lead to improved care procedures. While morale was low before the new program, a nurse asserted, "[Now] everyone is looking to grow—how can I make this place better?"

  • Mastery. Humans like to develop their skills and learn new things. Mastery has a bias towards engagement rather than compliance. Ideal work environments are challenging (not overwhelming); managers are able to raise challenges (and increase results) when workers develop and increase their capacity to do the work. Paying signing bonuses incents people to focus on the reward, not the work, while a focus on mastery allows the work to yield its own rewards.

  • Purpose. Humans are ultimately purpose-maximizers even more than profit-maximizers. Think of NASA in the 1960s, galvanized by Kennedy's dictum to go to the moon. Effective managers create common ends that bring people together at the activity level (e.g., for a particular meeting) or business level (delivering a needed product or service). In the case of the nurses, "Nurses want better working conditions more than they do extra money," concluded the author of the Washington Post article.
Imagine the impact possible when managers adopt Motivation 3.0. They retain productive employees who feel engaged in solving business problems and growing their own capacity to do so. What can possibly be stopping you from applying these principles?

View a short video on rethinking motivation. CLICK HERE


1By Dion Haynes, “What Nurses Want,” Washington Post, September 13, 2008, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/12/AR2008091203367.html

2By Daniel Pink, Drive, Riverhead, 2009.

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