Workplace Motivation – A TED Talk (Short Summary)

In 2009, motivation levels at the workplace were at all time lows after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) occurred. It was during these times that Dan Pink presented the notion of intrinsic motivators as a means to improve employee satisfaction and performance. Indeed, its implications extend beyond the business setting and into society at large.

The Traditional Approach

Too many organisations are still using extrinsic motivators such as financial incentives or other tangible rewards to drive performance. It can be observed though that such incentives that are designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity does the opposite instead. In a study which involved MIT students playing a bunch of games, as long as the task only involved mechanical skills, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. Once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance. From this study, it can be concluded that the traditional concept of the carrot and stick only seems to work for tasks that are simple with a set rules and a clearly defined goal. Rewards narrow our focus and concentrate our minds, limiting creativity.

A New Approach

On the other hand, Dan Pink presents the argument for intrinsic motivation which is engaging in behaviour for personal reward or reasons. Three elements are informally defined by Pink:

“Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives, Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters and Purpose: the yearning to do what we do to achieve something larger.”

Atlassian is an Australian software company that has employed this method. In an effort to engage their employees and increase productivity, there are so-called “FedEx” days where a few times in a year they tell their employees to work on anything that they want for the next 24 hours as long as it’s not a part of your regular job. The results have been spectacular: productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, work satisfaction goes up and turnover goes down.

It seems that the secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but the unseen intrinsic drive – the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to things because they matter. – Dan Pink

In the 21st Century, the ideology of carrot and sticks doesn’t seem to work as it should anymore. Autonomy, mastery and purpose? Perhaps it’s time that these notions of motivation are brought into more businesses.

Reference: Click here to view the whole inspiring talk.

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