16 November 2023

Manage so that you don't have to motivate - absurd or scientific truth? | Part 1


My clients often ask me how I motivate my teams. As a reply, I always smile and say It's not my personal charm, it's the scientific research that is my key to success. 


Some time ago, the basic premise of human behaviour was to survive. From obtaining food to fleeing into the bush when a sabre-toothed tiger approached. This drive controlled most of our behaviour. Let's call it Motivation 1.0.  

As time went on, people began to form complex societies and work together to get things done. They needed methods to tame this biological drive. And while that first drive was still important - it didn't fully explain who we were. We began to seek reward and avoid punishment. And that’s how Motivation 2.0 emerged, a driving force for economic development around the world. 

At that time, it’s worth noting the work of an American engineer, Frederic Winslow Taylor, who believed that companies were run in a clumsy, chaotic way. He also created scientific management, which was widely and quickly adopted. Taylor believed that employees were like parts of a complex machine. If they do the right job in the right way and at the right time, the machine will run smoothly. To guarantee this, you simply need to reward the behaviour you appreciate and punish the behaviour you disapprove of. People will respond rationally to these external forces - these external motivators - and both they and the system itself will prosper. 

In the 1950s, Abraham Maslow developed the field of humanistic psychology and challenged the view that people strive to find positive and avoid negative stimuli. In 1960, a management lecturer at MIT, Douglas McGregor, imported some of Maslow's ideas into the business world. McGregor challenged the assumption that people are basically passive - that without external rewards and punishments, they would do little to nothing. He argued that people had other, higher drives. And that these drives could benefit business if managers and business leaders respected them. It was because of him that some small advances were made in companies (attire requirements were limited, schedules became more flexible, and organisations looked for greater independence and opportunities for employee development). These improvements, which could be easily understood, controlled and enforced, can be referred to as Motivation 2.1.  


However, in the first ten years of this century, this robust old system no longer worked all that well and was incompatible with many aspects of modern business. MIT management professor Karim Lakhani and consultant Bob Wolf argued in their research that the most powerful and dominant driving force is intrinsic motivation based on satisfaction, namely how creative a person feels when working on a project.  

Some researchers are already extending the boundaries of behavioural economics to accommodate these new concepts. The most prominent of these is Bruno Frey, an economist at the University of Zurich. He argues that humans are equipped with more sophisticated motivational structures and that intrinsic motivation is extremely important for any economic activity. It is inconceivable that people are motivated solely or even mainly by external incentives.  


Today, for some people, work is a routine – not challenging and driven by someone else. But for a surprisingly large number of people, work has become something more complex, more interesting – something they have an influence on. This is especially true for heuristic work, which requires you to experiment with possibilities and come up with novel solutions. In the 20th century, most work was algorithmic. Not only was it screwing the same screw in the same direction all day long, but the mental work done was routine (reduced to a script, a specification, a formula or a series of steps that gave the right answer). Consulting company McKinsey & Co. estimates that in the US today, only 30% of job growth comes from algorithmic work and 70% from heuristic work. The key reason is that routine work can be automated, whereas with complex and experimental work this cannot be done. And this creates implications for motivation. Researcher Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School found that extrinsic rewards and punishments (carrots and sticks) – can work well with algorithmic tasks. At the same time, they can have a devastating effect on heuristic tasks. These types of challenging tasks – solving new problems or creating something new to a high degree – depend on intrinsic motivation.  


When we discuss motivation, it is important to start with a simple and real-life fact: people have to earn to live. A salary, some bonuses and a few extra benefits are what we call basic pay. If someone's basic salary is not sufficient or fair, such a person will focus on the injustice of their situation. Then there will be very little (if any) motivation at all. But once this threshold is crossed, using a carrot and a stick can achieve the opposite of the desired goal. Rewards and punishments can trigger negative behaviour and lead to cheating, addictions and dangerously short-sighted thinking. Why? If-then rewards (if you do this, you get that) require people to give up some of their autonomy. As one leading behavioural science textbook puts it: People use rewards in the expectation that it will benefit them to increase the other person's motivation and do better, but in doing so, they often unwittingly burden themselves with the hidden costs of undermining that person's intrinsic motivation to act. This is one of the most robust findings in the social sciences - and also one of the most widely ignored.  

Let's take a look at goals. What could be more valuable than having a goal? From an early age, teachers, coaches and parents advise us to set objectives and work hard to achieve them. Because they simply work. The scientific literature shows that goals – by helping us to ignore what distracts us – can make us try harder, work longer and achieve more. BUT. 

The wise teacher, coach and parent knows that healthy goals are those that children set for themselves and are designed to lead to mastery. Goals imposed by others – sales quotas, quarterly profits, standardised test scores – can sometimes have dangerous side effects. This is because, like all external motivators, they narrow our field of vision. This is one of the reasons why they work effectively – they focus on the mind. But, a narrowed focus comes at a cost. With complex and conceptual tasks, offering a reward can put a lid on the 'panoramic' thinking required to come up with an innovative solution. The problem is that if one considers an external reward as the ONLY important goal, there will be people who will choose the quickest route to that goal, even if it means going down the path of transgression. In this way, stated goals can systematically cause problems for organisations due to a narrowed field of vision, unethical behaviour, a greater propensity to take risks, less cooperation and reduced intrinsic motivation.  


The researchers point out there are numerous examples of that:  

  • When mechanical plants impose sales quotas on their workers, they can contribute to workers overcharging customers and making unnecessary repairs. 
  • Ford was so keen to produce a car of a particular weight, at a particular price and by a particular date that workers bypassed safety tests and an unsafe Ford Pinto was released.  
  • When a salesperson has a sales threshold required to get a bonus, they may under-sell in one better month by dragging out delivery to the customer so that in the next (considered weaker) month they have a better start from the beginning. 

Compare this approach with behaviour driven by intrinsic motivation. When the reward is the activity itself – expanding your knowledge, delighting your customers, giving your best – then there are no shortcuts. The only way to get there is through honesty. In a sense, acting unethically is almost impossible because the person being put at a disadvantage is yourself.  

Sticks and carrots are not exclusively bad. Such a claim would even contradict research findings. Researchers studying human motivation have revealed the fact that, in a narrow range of cases, sticks and carrots do their job well. The starting point, of course, is to ensure that the base salary (+ payments, salaries, bonuses and so on) - is sufficient and fair. If there’s no healthy basis, motivation in general is difficult and often impossible.  

For routine tasks that don't require creative thinking, rewards can act as a small supportive dose of motivation without causing harmful side effects. In a way, it just makes sense. As Edward Deci, Richard Ryan and Richard Koestner explain, With boring tasks, rewards do not undermine a person's intrinsic motivation, because there is little or no intrinsic motivation.  

Together, Deci and Ryan have developed a theory they call self-determination theory, SDT. Self-determination theory starts from the notion of universal human needs. It maintains that we have three innate psychological needs - the need for competence, the need for autonomy and the need for connection. When these needs are satisfied, we are motivated, productive and happy. When their satisfaction is blocked, our motivation, productivity and happiness deteriorate rapidly. If there is something fundamental in our nature, it is the ability to be interested. But whether this aspect of our nature manifests itself in our lives depends on whether the conditions around us are conducive to it.  

How does this relate to management? According to Ryan, When people don't perform, companies tend to resort to rewards or punishment. Instead, they don't do the difficult homework of diagnosing what the problem is. They try to push the problem with carrots and sticks, rather than creating an environment where people's innate psychological needs can flourish.


In summary, there are two elegant and simple concepts at the heart of Motivation 2.0: Rewarding an activity results in more of it and Punishing an activity results in less of it.  However, extrinsic motivators can only work effectively for algorithmic tasks – those that involve following an existing formula to its logical conclusion. But for endeavours that engage the right hemisphere of the brain more – those that require flexible problem-solving, ingenuity or conceptual understanding – conditional rewards can be dangerous. The intrinsic motivation to do something because it is interesting, challenging and absorbing is essential for achieving high levels of creativity. In contrast, the 'if-then' motivators that are standard for most businesses often inhibit creative thinking rather than stimulate it. If offered conditionally, it causes people to inevitably focus on getting the reward rather than getting down to solving the problem.  


If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to read the book: Daniel H. Pink's ”Drive. The surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. 


Source of graphics:

Agnieszka Topczewska-Pińczuk
Scrum Master | Project Manager

I believe that anything I do, I do for the end-user. I maximise value by:

- setting a path to the product's goal, helping developers do what they need to do

- frequently inspecting the result of their work to confront assumptions with reality

- adapting to the changing needs of Stakeholders based on feedback and measurable data.

I manage IT products agilely and know how to make your vision a reality. Would you like to work with me?