Do we really know what turns people on?

Why rewards and incentives need a major rethink.

29 April 2010, by Tracey Swanepoel

JOHANNESBURG - If I had a hundred bucks for every time I sat in a meeting and the problem of underperformance was resolved with some kind of incentive scheme, I would be sitting in the Bahamas (rather than writing this column). In fact, if it were as simple as the flick of a "pay more and you get more" switch, most of you would be joining me!

So how do we get people to work harder? Be more productive? Save costs? Change the way they do things? The question may vary but the answer always seems to be the same: the tried and trusted carrot and stick approach.

But how well does this approach work? Does it work at all? And if not threat of punishment or promise of reward what else is there?

Well as often happens, practice proves theory as outdated and practice is paving the way for a new approach to motivation.

The new world of work, replete with flat structures, job sharing and empowerment, is like a brand new state-of-the-art house with an archaic wiring system. The very system needed to "turn the lights on" is from the last century.

This outdated wiring system starts with a distorted view of what constitutes work - a set of repetitive, dreary and mundane tasks. The only way to get people to do it at all is to reward them. People need to be carefully monitored so that they don't shirk. This approach also assumes an inertia that's not our natural state ie, without carrot or stick we simply would not get out of bed in the morning! Where are the active, engaged, energised people we know we are or can be? Clearly not in his model!

Actually we are in this model! Scarily enough a substantial body of research proves that rewards can perform a weird sort of behavioural alchemy: if you are rewarded consistently, very quickly what was once an interesting task turns into a drudge.

One study is worth briefly outlining. Researchers identified preschoolers who spontaneously spent their free time drawing. They separated them into three groups: one group was always rewarded with a certificate; the second group was sometimes rewarded with a certificate and the last group was never rewarded with a certificate. Guess what happened? After two weeks the first group (always rewarded) did not want to do drawing if given a choice. The second group (rewarded unexpectedly) still wanted to draw and the last group continued to draw as much as they always had.

So it seems that rewards, on an ongoing, expected basis are the quickest way to turn play into work. How come? Essentially it's about the "if-then" relationship ie, if you do this then you will get that. This effectively eliminates people's autonomy. The result is that play (something that we are NOT obliged to do and do for the sheer joy of doing it) has just magically been transformed into work, something we ARE obliged to do and will only do if we are well rewarded!

The road to rewiring

The preschool research holds true for business too. Countless examples illustrate people doing "stuff" (writing software, compiling encyclopedias, publishing online) who are doing it for no other reason than that they enjoy it. There's Firefox, a free open source web browser (with 150m users) created by volunteers around the world. There's Wikipedia, the largest and most popular encyclopedia in the world, created by tens of thousands of hobbyists without any special qualifications, who are not paid (let alone incentivised) and who sometimes contribute over 30 or 40 hours a week.

So even if we do buy this thinking, how do we go about applying it in mining, manufacturing, IT or any other business? It's not as easy as flicking a switch - it is a rewiring process. Here are three of the main circuits that we can start to work on:

More autonomy - less control

We may have employees but we don't own them. We can't motivate them into appropriate action (unless we use the old wiring system of carrot and stick). While it's true that routine tasks do require direction, we need to think about how to factor choice or autonomy into this. Less routine work doesn't have a recipe factor and thus always requires self-direction, which equals autonomy. The Wikipedia model is probably one that will flourish here. As one leader puts it, "if my employees need ME to motivate them - they probably shouldn't be working for me".

The power of progress

A multi-year Harvard study aimed at finding out what really motivates workers has revealed it's not about rewards, but rather all about progress! When workers feel they are making headway in their jobs, their drive to succeed is at its peak. This is great news. It's a simple and powerful lever, largely in leaders' control.

Strength to strengths

Great companies are not a collection of "perfect 10" individuals. Rather they are built on the unique strengths and talents of the people working there. Focusing on people's strengths is a powerful motivator, they simply can't wait to get out there and do more.

So next time the default answer to "what really turns them on?" is any form of incentive - think carefully. It may work in the short term, but keep in mind that it's a temporary solution that will eventually end up tripping the entire system.

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