A champion needs a motivation above and beyond winning.”- Pat Riley

“If you do this, then you get that” is a contingent motivator. Dan Pink, in his funny and enlightening piece for the TED (technology, education, design) Global 2009 conference reminds us what social scientists have known for over 40 years. Contingent motivators (rewards, commissions, bonuses) don’t work as often or like we think they will in motivating others.

Pink goes on to tell us that there is a “mismatch between what science KNOWS and what business DOES.” If/then rewards work well for simple, clearly defined tasks. Unfortunately, for many businesses, the tasks where you most need high achievers are no longer simple or clearly defined. Those types of tasks are being outsourced or automated. So, additional research found that*:

1. as long as tasks involved only mechanical skills, bonuses worked: the higher the pay, the better the performance

2. once tasks involve even basic cognitive skills, larger rewards led to poorer performance

3. in most of the tasks examined, higher incentives led to worse performance

*these studies were performed by MIT researchers for the Federal Reserve Bank and others were conducted by the London School of Economics

And what DOES work for those cognitive tasks where you want and need innovation and problem solving from your team?

autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives

mastery: the desire to get better at what we do

purpose: the urge to do what we do in the service of something greater than ourselves

Thank you, Dan Pink (author of Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind), for the valuable insights you’ve gathered.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll discuss how to relate this to your own business and team! Subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss this and other valuable content.

If you liked this post, you might also like:

How to Motivate Employees (download e-book)

How to Conduct an Employee Performance Appraisal

Employee Recruitment


by Steven Schlagel