What really motivates workers? Don’t believe the Harvard Business Review

After a recent talk on “Making it Big in software”, one of the attendees sent me a link to an article by the Harvard Business Review about breakthrough ideas for 2010. The top idea was an article by Amabile and Kramer about what really motivates workers. Their thesis was that people are motivated by “progress” more than “incentives”.  To support their claim they studied the correlation between “good days at work” and “progress”, showing, not surprisingly,that the two are indeed highly correlated. (Here’s the article: http://hbr.org/2010/01/the-hbr-list-breakthrough-ideas-for-2010/ar/1). Here’s a direct quote:
“A close analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries, together with the writers’ daily ratings of their motivation and emotions, shows that making progress in one’s work—even incremental progress—is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any other workday event.”

A similar presentation by Daniel Pink goes further to suggest that rewards and incentives actually inhibit productivity. http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

What Pink, Amabile and Kramer are suggesting is that incentives in the traditional sense (financial rewards, public recognition, etc) are not only secondary they are actually counter productive. That is to say, these kinds of “incentives” have a negative effect and that what really gets a team excited and driven is a feeling of progress.

There’s no question that people are happy when they make progress. But is it fair to say that happiness and positive feelings are really the same as successfully motivating a team towards a goal? I’m sure they are important, desperately important. But a happy day at work isnt;t the same as a motivated goal driven day.

In fact the key effect of incentives is not to motivate people, and I agree with Pink, Amabile and Kramer in that (to work harder and hopefully receive the reward) but rather to provide clarity to employees on what an organization really values. In short, you get what you reward: not predominantly because you have motivated employees with the potential of reward (that helps, but only slightly), but overwhelmingly because the rewards remove ambiguity.

If you tell your staff that eating ice cream is unhealthy for them, but give out free ice cream at lunch every day will the consumption of ice cream increase or decrease? There’s no question consumption will rise. That’s because although you’ve really sent a mixed message (one that encourages eating ice cream and another that discourages it) the message to eat ice cream was more compelling – because that’s where you invested cold hard cash. The message that ice cream was unhealthy was jus a message, while the free ice cream was something more – it was an incentive.  This is a powerful idea in Making it Big in Software – incentives clarify intentions. They identify for people what an organization really values. In so doing, within the morass of mixed corporate messages, incentives filter the chaff from the wheat.

Pink, Amabile and Kramer are probably bang-on that progress is a dominant factor in job satisfaction. But to really keep a team passionate and focussed you need more than a satisfied team, you also need a team that’s completely focussed on its goals. Clarity of purpose. That’s where good ol’ fashioned incentives can work wonders.

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