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Truth about what motivates us

Posted by on Jun 17, 2019

Our motivations are unbelievably interesting.00:17I’ve been working on this for a few years00:19and I find the topic still amazingly engaging and interesting,00:23so I want to tell you about that.00:25The science is really surprising. It’s a little bit freaky!00:30We are not as endlessly manipulable00:33and as predictable as you would think.00:35There’s a whole set of unbelievably interesting studies.00:38I want to give you two that call into question this idea00:41that if you reward something, you get more of the behavior you want00:44and if you punish something you get less of it.00:47Let’s go from London to the mean streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts,00:51in the northeast of the United States,00:53and talk about a study at MIT -00:55Massachusetts Institute of Technology.00:58They took a whole group of students and gave them a set of challenges.01:01Things like…01:10..They gave them these challenges and, to incentivise performance,01:14they gave them three levels of reward.01:17If you did pretty well, you got a small monetary reward.01:21If you did medium well, you got a medium monetary reward.01:24If you were one of the top performers,01:27you got a large cash prize.01:29We’ve seen this movie before.01:31This is a typical motivation scheme within organizations.01:35We reward the very top performers. We ignore the low performers.01:39Folks in the middle, OK, you get a little bit.01:43So what happens? They do the test. They have these incentives.01:47Here’s what they found out.01:49As long as the task involved only mechanical skill,01:53bonuses worked as they would be expected.01:56The higher the pay, the better the performance. That makes sense.02:00But here’s what happened.02:02Once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill,02:05a larger reward led to poorer performance.02:10This is strange. How can that possibly be?02:15What’s interesting is that these folks who did this are economists,02:20two at MIT, one at University of Chicago, one at Carnegie Mellon,02:24the top tier of the economics profession.02:27They’re reaching this conclusion that seems contrary02:29to what a lot of us learned in economics -02:32the higher the reward, the better the performance.02:35They’re saying that once you get above rudimentary cognitive skill,02:39it’s the other way around.02:42The idea that these rewards don’t work that way02:45seems vaguely left-wing and socialist, doesn’t it?02:49It’s a weird socialist conspiracy.02:51For those of you who have those conspiracy theories,02:54I want to point out the notoriously left-wing socialist group02:58that financed the research – the Federal Reserve Bank.03:01This is the mainstream of the mainstream coming to a conclusion03:05that seems to defy the laws of behavioral physics.03:08This is strange, so what do they do?03:11They say, “This is freaky. Let’s test it somewhere else.03:14″Maybe that $50, $60 prize03:16″isn’t sufficiently motivating for an MIT student!03:20″Let’s go to a place where $50 is more significant, relatively.03:24″We’re going to go to Madurai, rural India,03:28″where $50, $60 is actually a significant sum of money.”03:32They replicated the experiment in India, roughly as follows.03:35Small rewards – the equivalent of two weeks’ salary.03:39I mean, sorry, low performance – two weeks’ salary.03:43Medium performance – a month’s salary.03:47High performance – two months’ salary.03:50Those are real good incentives. You’ll get a different result here.03:54What happened was that the people offered the medium reward03:58did no better than the people offered the small reward.04:02This time around, the people offered the top reward did worst of all.04:05Higher incentives led to worse performance.04:08What’s interesting is that it isn’t that anomalous.04:10This has been replicated over and over again by psychologists,04:15by sociologists and by economists – over and over and over again.04:19For simple, straightforward tasks,04:22″if you do this, then you get that”, they’re great!04:26For tasks that are algorithmic,04:28a set of rules you have to follow and get a right answer,04:32″if then” rewards, carrot and stick, outstanding!04:35But when a task gets more complicated,04:39when it requires conceptual, creative thinking,04:42those kinds of motivators demonstrably don’t work.04:46Fact – money is a motivator at work, but in a slightly strange way.04:50If you don’t pay people enough, they won’t be motivated.04:53There’s another paradox here.04:55The best use of money as a motivator04:58is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table,05:01so they’re not thinking about money, they’re thinking about the work.05:05Once you do that, there are three factors that the science shows05:09lead to better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction -05:13autonomy, mastery and purpose.05:16Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed, direct our own lives.05:20In many ways, traditional notions of management run foul of that.05:24Management is great if you want compliance.05:26If you want engagement, which is what we want in the workforce today,05:29as people are doing more sophisticated things,05:32self-direction is better.05:34Let me give you some examples05:36of almost radical forms of self-direction in the workplace05:39that lead to good results.05:41Let’s start with Atlassian, an Australian software company.05:45They do something really cool.05:47Once a quarter on a Thursday, they say to their developers,05:50″For the next 24 hours, you can work on anything you want,05:54″the way you want, with whomever you want.05:57″All we ask is that you show the results to the company06:01″in this fun meeting – not a star chamber session,06:04″but with beer and cake and fun and things like that.”06:08It turns out that that one day of pure, undiluted autonomy06:12has led to a whole array of fixes for existing software,06:16a whole array of ideas for new products06:19that otherwise would never emerge – one day.06:21This is not the sort of thing that I would have done06:24before I knew this research.06:27I would have said, “You want people to be innovative?06:30″Give them a frickin’ innovation bonus.06:32″If you do something cool, I’ll give you $2,500.”06:35They’re saying, “You probably want to do something interesting.06:39″Let me get out of your way.”06:41One day of autonomy produces things that had never emerged.06:44Let’s talk about mastery – our urge to get better at stuff.06:47We like to get better at stuff.06:49This is why people play musical instruments on the weekend.06:52These people are acting in ways that seem irrational economically.06:56They play musical instruments? Why?06:58It’s not going to get them a mate or make them any money.07:02Cos it’s fun. Cos you get better at it and that’s satisfying.07:06I imagine that if I went to my first economics professor,07:10a woman named Mary Alice Shulman,07:13and I went to her in 1983 and said,07:16″Professor Shulman, can I talk to you after class?07:19″I got this idea for a business model and I want to run it past you.07:24″Here’s how it would work.07:27″You get a bunch of people around the world who do highly skilled work07:32″but they’re willing to do it for free07:35″and volunteer their time – 20, sometimes 30 hours a week.”07:39She’s looking somewhat skeptically there.07:42″But I’m not done!07:44″Then what they create, they give it away rather than sell it.07:48″It’s gonna be huge!” (LAUGHTER)07:51She would have thought I was insane.07:53It seems to fly in the face of so many things, but you have Linux07:57powering one out of four corporate servers in Fortune 500 companies,08:01Apache powering more than the majority of web servers, Wikipedia.08:06What’s going on? Why are people doing this?08:09Many are technically sophisticated, highly skilled people who have jobs.08:14OK? They have jobs! They’re working at jobs for pay,08:18doing sophisticated technological work.08:22And yet, during their limited discretionary time,08:25they do equally, if not more, technically sophisticated work,08:29not for their employer, but for someone else for free.08:33That’s a strange economic behavior. Economists have looked into it.08:37″Why are you doing this?” It’s overwhelmingly clear -08:40challenge and mastery, along with making a contribution, that’s it.08:44What you see more and more is the rise of the “purpose motive”.08:48More and more organizations want some kind of transcendent purpose.08:52Partly because it makes coming to work better,08:55partly because that’s the way to get better talent.08:58What we’re seeing now09:00is when the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive,09:04bad things happen.09:06Ethically sometimes, but also bad things, like “not good stuff”!09:11Like crappy products.09:13Like lame services.09:15Like uninspiring places to work.09:17When the profit motive is paramount09:20or when it becomes completely unhitched from the purpose motive,09:24people don’t do great things.09:26More and more organizations are realizing this,09:29disturbing the categories between what’s profit and what’s purpose.09:32I think that actually heralds something interesting.09:35The companies that are flourishing – profit, not-for-profit09:39or somewhere in between – are animated by this purpose motive.09:42Let me give you some examples.09:45The founder of Skype says, “Our goal is to be disruptive,09:48″but in the cause of making the world a better place.”09:52Pretty good purpose. Here’s Steve Jobs.09:54″I want to put a ding in the universe.”09:57That’s the kind of thing that might get you up, racing to go to work.10:01I think we are purpose maximizers, not only profit maximizers.10:07I think the science shows that we care about mastery very deeply10:11and that we want to be self-directed.10:13I think that the big take-away here10:15is that if we start treating people like people,10:18not assuming that they’re simply horses -10:21slower, smaller, better smelling horses -10:24if we get past the ideology of carrot and stick10:27and look at the science,10:29we can build organizations and work lives that make us better off.10:33They also have the promise to make our world just a little bit better.


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