Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In Which I Discuss Getting Properly Motivated

I have a confession to make.

For some time now, I've been a heavy TED user.

It started off innocently enough: a bit of cutting edge physics here, a new idea in ergonomics there. Before I knew it, I was spending hours at a time mainlining new talks... as many as I could get my grubby little hands on.

For those who are not familiar with TED, I'll say only that it's a highly addictive source of fascinating information, compelling thought, and inspired discourse. Those already familiar with TED know what I'm talking about. For the rest of you, begin viewing it at your peril because, like Lays, you can't stop at just one.

Anyway, all of that is beside the point. For now I'd like to talk about a particular talk I just saw given by Dan Pink, on incentives and motivation.

You can go watch it later, if you want to risk visiting the site. For now, I'll sum up to say that most of what he talks about is extrinsic motivators ("I'll give you a bonus if you get this done faster") and their effects on tasks that require creative thought. He references several studies which state, put simply, that typical carrot and stick motivators work great for simple mechanical or procedural tasks that have a clear path and end result, but that for virtually everything else these sorts of motivators either do not work, or in many cases actually harm productivity. Extrinsic motivators narrow our focus, and restrict creativity, reducing productivity in areas that require us to be creative.

The solution he proposes, and again he references studies to support the idea, is to use intrinsic motivators... incentives built into the work itself. Specifically, the incentives he refers to are autonomy (our desire to direct our own lives), mastery (our desire to improve at something that matters to us) and purpose (the desire to work as part of something larger than ourselves). Autonomy is key to his talk, and he references several cases where high levels of autonomy result in even higher levels of productivity from creative workers.

My first reaction to this talk was, "okay here we go, more studies into the obvious." Like the recent study by UK Music that states that lots of kids download music. But the more that I thought about it, the more I realized that this isn't such an obvious conclusion for most people. I happen to work in an industry where the most productive people tend to be those quirky loners, wearing all black, with an unusually high tendency toward Asberger's. There's a certain percentage of us that are treated just a bit differently, partly because we're all socially stunted to wildly varying degrees, and partly because big business depends on us so much to keep the lights on and you don't want to upset the emotionally fragile guy in the basement that could cripple your entire business. And as we progress in our careers, and we can make more demands of our employers, that special treatment only grows.

In the last ten years, I don't think there's been more than two days in any given week that I've shown up at the office before 10am. I often work long hours, especially compared to most nine-to-fivers, but I've tended to work for employers that recognize that my job puts odd time demands on me. For example, it's not unusual for me to have to do scheduled maintenance outside of regular work hours, or to be paged in the middle of the night. And so, I've experienced an incredible degree of autonomy over the years, culminating in my current position where I can work pretty much where and when I want, as long as the work gets done. This is how I'm able to be sitting on my balcony at 4am, with a beer, writing, instead of sleeping so that I can be at work at 8:30 in the morning.

I occasionally forget that most of the workforce doesn't experience this degree of self-determination, and thus my flawed first reaction that Dan Pink is telling us things we all already know. So maybe it's not so obvious to everyone, but I think the fact that it seemed obvious to me, due to my experience, shows what truth there is to what he has to say. And anyway, as Pink says in his talk, this isn't a feeling, or philosophy, it's science.

So if science tells us that virtually the entire industrialized world is doing it wrong, why are we still doing it that way? My answer is, the momentum and dogma of middle management. I've seen both represented in several managers that I've seen in action.

The dogma is that employees will not work unless someone is watching them. This is perhaps true for some employees.. but if you have these employees you already have a problem. It's best to let them be lazy, and fail, so that they can be discovered and removed, rather than keep them on a tight leash to make sure they're engaged in some passable, minimum effort.

The momentum is the managers' own work styles. I've had this conflict with a couple of managers in the past: due to the fact that my career is all about managing servers on networks in many locations, there is no requirement that I do my job from any one location, however some of my managers have been incapable of handling a remote employee who they cannot see, or speak to in person. I use the metaphor of momentum to describe this because I believe it will taper off over time as the older managers, who are not used to the online world with dozens of methods of instant communication slowly retire. As younger workers who are used to communicating in ways that do not provide the additional bandwidth of face-to-face communication take over, this will be less of an issue.

I'm quite happy that my current managers do not have either of these problems, but I have had to deal with them in the past. And, most people deal with them on a day to day basis, though they might not realize it.

So then how do we solve the problem? Is it simply a waiting game, where we hold our breath and wait for a slow evolution in the way businesses manage their people, or is there some revolutionary step we can take to change the minds of hundreds of thousands of managers convinced that this is the right way, as well as the millions of employees sold on the idea of bonuses and stock options? I've only been thinking about this for a few hours, so I don't have a solution yet, but I'd bet than Dan Pink has some ideas. After all, he has a book on this very subject due out soon.

I, for one, will be looking forward to the rest of what he has to say.

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