Tagged: mastery

Some more lessons from Dan Pink

In my last post I wrote about how in Drive, Dan Pink wants us to change the way we think about how we’re motivated. He says that our current business operating system (which he thinks of as ‘Motivation 2.1’) is centred on external rewards – carrots and sticks. And he shows us the science which proves that it’s an increasingly outdated way to motivate people; indeed it can often do more harm than good. So Pink believes that we need an upgrade. Motivation 3.0 needs to be based on autonomy (to direct our own lives), mastery (to get better and better at something that matters) and purpose (to work in the service of something larger than ourselves). And I agree.

In this post I wanted to share some specific lessons I took from the book…

Give workers as much autonomy as you can handle. Pink says that if a task is self-directed, you’ll be more interested in it, you’ll make time for it and it’ll probably be better suited to your skills. And there’s a bunch of evidence that proves that business performance improves with greater employee autonomy. Researchers at Cornell University for example did an experiment with 320 small businesses, half of whom granted workers autonomy and half relied on top-down direction. The result? The former grew at four times the latter and had one third of the turnover. The bottom line from Pink is clear: “This era doesn’t need better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.” (Bonus link: JP Rangaswami has spoken at length about designing for loss of control”Why would you want to hire a really smart person and then tell them what to do…”)

Treat people as people; not as resources. In the book Pink talks a bit about ROWEs (results orientated work environments). They are the brainchild of Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, two former HR execs at the American retailer Best Buy. The idea is that as a business you ignore input measures like timesheets and instead focus entirely on outputs and outcomes; you enable the people in your organisation to work when and how they want, where and with whom they want. They just need to get the work done. This is Pink’s idea of autonomy on acid, and has proved very successful for many of the organisations who have embraced it. The killer line comes from CEO Jeff Gunther who has rolled out ROWE across his software companies: “More companies will migrate to this as more business owners my age come up. My dad’s generation views human beings as human resources …[]… for me it’s a partnership between me and my employees. They’re not resources, they’re partners.”

Pink reminds us that ‘management’ has been a specifically human invention. And like all inventions it’s had its time, grown old and needs to be updated: “…at it’s core management hasn’t changed much in a hundred years. It’s central ethic remains control; it’s chief tools remain extrinsic motivators.” Pink wants to challenge management’s underlying assumption: that we are naturally passive and inert, and need to be managed. He suggests instead that we are active, self-directed and curious, and that we’re wired that way out the box; you only need to look at a six-month-old child. He says that if we become passive and inert as we grow older it’s because we learn to be so. (As ever I find myself channelling Clay Shirky here: when our only opportunity was to consume, that’s what we did (and so we became marketing’s ‘consumers’); now that we have the opportunity to participate we’re much more active and engaged (and we have become Twitter’s and Facebooks ‘users’).) I personally believe that somewhere along the line we’ve forgotten to treat people as people, they’re still an asset on the balance sheet to be sweated. People are relationships. People are innovation. People are customers. Not resources.

Make time for free time. I don’t have much more to say about this one since ‘20% time’ is already famously part of Atlassian’s and Google’s working practices, other than to add that I strongly believe that more companies could benefit from some form of free innovation time. For those companies dedicated to – and often I suspect reliant on – innovation, I can see why one day in five actually needs to be spent working on employees’ own interests; after all, it’s what enabled Google to bring Gmail, Google News and AdSense to market. But I can understand why other organisations – perhaps those in heavy industry – might be reticent to try it out since their time really is money; if you’re not on the factory floor or selling then you’re not making money.

The point is that some form of free time would I suspect massively benefit those who try it. Perhaps just a trial of 5% time; that’s one day each month. You could find time for some people on the factory floor, while others keep the wheels turning, to solve problems that they care about. It would be easy to fashion it on Atlassian’s model of ‘FedEx days’ where you have to deliver something overnight. In a big company, this could have a huge impact on the customer experience, a new idea or indeed on employee satisfaction and engagement (especially if the employees can coordinate themselves around self-directed topics).

Help people find flow. I’m sure each of us can remember a time when we were so focussed on somthing that we were in the ‘zone’ – or as Mihaly Csikszentmihaly defines it (and as John Hagel has eloquently written lots about since), we had flow. I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t a reward or salary you were focussed on, but the task itself. This phenomenon has been well-documented in many disciplines from writers amd surgeons to painters and swimmers. Rather than clumsily summarise what’s in the book, here’s Pink’s own words about a study into flow: “the relationship between what a person has to do and what he could do was perfect. The challenge wasn’t too easy. Nor was it too difficult. It was a notch or two beyond his current abilities which stretched the body and mind in a way that made the effort itself the most delicious reward… …in flow, people lived so deeply in the moment and felt so utterly in control that their sense of time, place and even self melted away.”

If employees could be helped to find flow in their work, I suspect the performance benefits could be huge – and importantly, employee engagement and satisfaction would go through the roof. That would mean helping individuals find work that suits them, and would mean understanding – and providing feedback about – levels of performance and levels of task difficulty. This stuff isn’t easy to do and harder to implement. But if your organisations could tap into these employee moments of connection with the task, then it would benefit everyone.

Focus on learning goals not just performance goals. Setting out to get an A grade in high school French (what Pink calls a performance goal) is different from setting out to learn French (a learning goal). The motivations for each are very different and they will likely produce different outcomes. We all need to better understand these differences in order to tap into our individual potential – indeed to tap into our organisations ‘talent’.

Performance goals are those which have well-defined targets that can be clearly measured and rewarded – they are perfect for extrinsic motivation. Do this, get that. Learning goals on the other hand are longer-term and less-measurable, a bit like intrinsic-motivation. The thing is that with learning goals is that you get increasingly close to the target but never fully reach it. This very characteristic inspires continuous improvement – a need to keep learning. It’s one of the principles of mastery.

Importantly – and somewhat intuitively – learning goals (and therefore mastery) are more likely to satisfy us over the long term. One particular study looked at graduates in the years directly after university: they found that those who set out with performance goals (e.g. money, fame and acclaim) didn’t get happier or become more satisfied than they were at university. Even though many achieved their goals. AND they were more likely to get depressed or be anxious than those who set out with learning goals, who generally felt happier and reported higher levels of satisfaction over time.

There’s no secret sauce here: learning goals and mastery take lots of effort, patience, grit, determination and focus. These are the very leadership qualities that most organisations would want their employees to have – indeed, qualities which are so often seen in successful sports men and women, musicians, craftspeople and entrepreneurs. Perhaps organisations should take a closer look at learning goals and seek inspiration from beyond the boardroom (where we so often motivate leaders with performance goals and external rewards – share price performance, dividends and bonuses).

Only use carrots and sticks when you need to. Pinkpoints out a couple of big problems with external rewards. Firstly, they narrow our focus and restrict our thinking. This is great when we’re working on repetitive and rule-based tasks, but it’s not good when the task needs new ideas, inventiveness or for us to think ‘out the box’. In fact, external rewards like money have been shown time and time again to make us perform less well when the task requires creativity. Secondly, carrots and sticks can have unintended consequences. When we focus on external rewards we are more likely to cheat, to take shortcuts, to take risks, to cooperate less and even to become addicted to the reward itself; once a reward is offered, it becomes expected and over time, the gratification of the reward tails off which means that next time – like a drug – more reward is needed the get the same level of satisfaction.

The third reason that ‘if-then’ external rewards (and indeed punishments) can cause problems is that they can ‘crowd-out’ our intrinsic motivations. Regardless of why a task is started, if an external reward or punishment is introduced we’re likely to become less creative and more selfish. As they say, and research has shown, we’ll often consider that a ‘fine as a price’; we view punishments (our ‘sticks’) as something to weigh up against the benefit of doing it anyway.

Pink’s advice is that if we have to use carrots and sticks, we must make sure it’s only for rule-based algorithmic tasks and that we must also do three things to help employees: we must explain to the worker why the task is necessary (even if it’s boring, make it meaningful); we must acknowledge that the task is boring (empathise with those doing the work); and we must give the worker freedom to complete the task – focus them on the outcome, not the rules to get there – give them autonomy.

Given that today we’re more likely to be knowledge-workers than rule-based workers, carrots and sticks are probably doing more harm than good and encouraging us to take shortcuts to reach our goals. We need to think very carefully about how, when and why we use external rewards in the workplace. Of course, this is all very topical as we reflect on the root causes of the banking crisis…

Take money off the table. Each of us has a threshold level of motivation – a level of income we need to live a certain lifestyle, or an amount of pay below which we’ll say the task isn’t worth doing. Pink has shown that above this level of reward, extrinsic motivations can have a detrimental effect on performance and individual behaviour. So it’s clear then that a decent salary, benefits and perks should form only a baseline so that we can the issue of money off the table. We should instead motivate our employees with self-direction and control (autonomy), the enjoyment of the task itself and learning (mastery) and the reason to work in the service of something greater than ourselves (purpose). It’s about using rewards in the right way. In my mind this is a bit like Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs. A salary should address our basic needs, but that it’s our intrinsic motivations that should push us up to the higher levels of esteem and self-actualisation (which is of course where creativity, problem solving and morality live – the very things we aspire to have in the workplace).

Peter Drucker had it right: people make shoes not money. Let’s start rewarding people to make great shoes and the rest will follow.

Start with why. This one deserves a whole post in itself, but for now the lesson is simply that we need our organisations to have a reason to exist that’s beyond performance goals and extrinsic rewards. Money is an outcome, not a purpose. Only this week I noticed that Sir Jonathan Ive said at a conference: “Our goal absolutely at Apple is not to make money… Our goal and what gets us excited is to try to make great products. We trust that if we are successful people will like them, and if we are operationally competent we will make revenue, but we are very clear about our goal.”

A choice

So Pink sets out our two options: we can hold onto a view of human motivation that is grounded more in hold habits than in modern science. Or we can listen to the science and research and build organisations that build on the way we’re really motivated – intrinsically; doing so we’ll make our businesses, our societies and ourselves happier. I agree with Pink when he says it won’t be easy, and that it won’t happen overnight. But it can and should happen, and I’m willing to help us get there.