Quantum Physics & Employee Motivation

Newton’s First Law of Motion, though revolutionary in its day, is simple enough: An object in motion will stay in motion and an object at rest will stay at rest, unless acted on by an outside force.

This Law has helped legions of students understand physics and has shaped the world view of generations of scientists. And it works, too, until one gets down to the subatomic world where quarks, fermions and baryons dwell. There, as Daniel Pink says in his revolutionary book Drive about employee motivation, “things get freaky.” In other words, things don’t work the way logic and history teach us they should.

Surprisingly, the same can be said for employee motivation.

The quest for employee motivation is about control and the application of external force. Speaking as an employer myself, I am constantly thinking about what I can do to control the outcome I desire. I think: “What can I do to raise our revenue by increasing the rate at which files are opened or the efficiency with which work is performed.“

My mindset, in other words, tends to reflect conventional wisdom of “pay more, get more.”  If you want more widgets produced, hours billed, or projects completed, create a bonus structure that rewards production.   When I took Introductory Economics at Duke in 1982, our textbook instructed us that in a world of perfect information, the parties will work toward a wealth-maximizing result. In other words, wealth was the determinative factor in human motivation. And if wealth is the determinative factor, business owners like me could manipulate wealth, thereby increasing motivation.

The problem is that it just doesn’t seem to work that way with anything but repetitive piecework. Where creative, problem-solving work is concerned, things tend to get freaky.

Time and time again, people leave lucrative positions to take lower paying jobs doing what they truly like. They’ll forgo a W-2 environment for the much riskier (and more work-intensive) entrepreneurial undertaking. They’ll spend hundreds of hours playing clarinet when they don’t have a hope of getting to the stage. They’ll spend hours on Sudoku or puzzles without any kind of incentive or reward.

My brother-in-law has spent his career as a long-haul truck driver, now working for UPS. From his observation of several large, nationally known companies, he concluded that most people wanted to do a good job. But when companies began installing incentive programs, long-term productivity plummeted. In the short run, of course, the drivers worked to attain the bonuses. Then, as the company began raising the targets and installing more incentives to hit, people began to tie their motivation to the bonus(es) they hoped to achieve. Once they determined that an incentive was out of reach or unimportant, their productivity dropped off to a point far below pre-incentive levels.

Pink comes to this same conclusion by traveling a different path. Pink refutes the historical incentive laden bonus structure by pointing out such seeming anomalies as the rise of open source products such as Firefox and Linux, the triumph of all-volunteer Wikipedia over the heavily funded Microsoft Encarta, and the pervasive presence of non-compensated, open resources offering everything from car repair advice to recipes.

In 1999, thirty years after his groundbreaking work as a psychology graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, Edward Deci, reviewed 128 separate sociological experiments and came to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.    Why? Because the creativity and sense of accomplishment that people once enjoyed had, when presented with productivity bonuses, suddenly become “work.” As Pink stated, “over and over again, they discovered that extrinsic rewards – in particular contingent, expected “if-then” rewards – snuffed out the third drive [of internal motivation].”

The challenge, therefore, is a daunting one. It is easy, after all, to figure out the results we want and provide a monetary reward based upon achievement. The challenge, however, is to create an environment that sparks each producer’s internal drive to succeed.

As we approach the New Year and contemplate, as business people, what we can do to make our own enterprises better in 2011, nothing merits consideration more than the question of employee motivation. We have to determine:

  1. What outcomes do we want to inspire; and
  2. What can we do as managers to incentivize the outcome without snuffing out that all-important self-motivation?

I’ll write more on this subject in upcoming blogs. Please feel free to weigh in with your comments.

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