Rotten Carrots

August 30, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Teamwork 

In a recent TED Talk, Dan Pink waxed eloquently about the ‘surprising science of motivation‘, describing the problems with how we run our businesses. I agree with what he has to say, and would take it even one step further.

The root of his thesis is that the overwhelmingly predominant approach to motivating our teams to do better, while it may have worked in a time gone by, actually drives weaker performance in today’s teams. His data shows (and he makes a strong and entertaining case) that when teams are motivated with incentives such as bonuses, extrinsic motivators, the teams do worse. In study after study.

This stuff works with straightforward tasks, such as you might see on an assembly line, tasks where there isn’t a great demand for creativity. If we are asked to focus on something has a clear path, indeed incented to do so, we will probably do better.

The difficulty comes in as we look at many of the problems we are trying to solve in the technology space. There isn’t a straightforward path, we are much better served to creatively explore alternatives rather than try the first idea until it fails. Unfortunately, the incentives we have traditionally used, the carrot-based incentives, tend to move us away from thinking creatively.

Instead, intrinsic motivators will get us to come up with those wonderfully elegant solutions that change our lives. Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the motivators that win out over the extrinsic carrots that are part of many incentive systems still being put in place in organizations today. Give the people the ability to work on what really jazzes them (like Google does), give them the ability to grow and attain mastery with the tools required to get the job done, give them a shared purpose to move the world, and you will be much further ahead.

On top of all that, if you are going to insist on working with those extrinsic motivators, or even if you are going to be more forward thinking and incent your teams to excel in a manner that better aligns with them, make sure you do this at a team level, never for individuals. Nothing will crush team spirit faster than individuals being recognized (particularly extrinsically) at the expense of others. – JB

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One Response to “Rotten Carrots”

  1. What Drives Us | Clarrus on April 2nd, 2010 1:42 pm

    […] many attempts at motivating people centre around extrinsic motivational factors (recall Dan Pink’s TED Talk and my Rotten Carrots post), notice how few in this list fall in that category. Power, prestige and money are commonly […]

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