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Theories of motivation

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Note: This page adapted and inspired by Dan Pink's talk at the RSA.

Dan Pink, Twitter
Author of TO SELL IS HUMAN, DRIVE, A WHOLE NEW MIND, and other books.

text version

Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

Our motivations are unbelievably interesting. I have been working on this for a few years and I just don't find the topic so amazingly engaging and interesting so I just want to tell you about that. This science is really surprising. The sign is a little bit freaky. We are not as endlessly manipulable and as predictable as you would think. There is a whole set of unbelievably interesting studies. I'm going to give you two. The call into question this idea that if you reward something do you get more of the behavior you want? If you punish something do you get less of the behavior you want? Let go from London to the Main Streets Cambridge Massachusetts the northeastern part of the United States. Let's talk about the studies done at MIT(Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Here is what they did, they took a whole group of students and they gave them a set of challenges. Things like memorizing strings of digits, solving word puzzles, solving other kinds of spatial puzzles, even physical tasks like throwing a ball through a hoop. They gave them these challenges and they said to incentivize their performance they gave them three levels of rewards. If you did pretty well you'll get a small monetary reward, if you did medium well you get a medium monetary reward and if you did really well you get a large cash prize. We have seen this movie before, this is essentially a typical motivation scheme within an organization. You reward the top performers we ignore the bottom performers, and other folks coming in the middle get a little bit.

What's happens? They do the test, they have these incentives, here is what they found out. As long as the test involved only mechanical skills, bonuses worked as expected, the higher the pay the better the performance (that makes sense). Here's the thing once the task called for rudimentally cognitive skills, a larger reward lead to poorer performance. This is strange. I larger reward lead to poorer performance, how could that possibly be? What's interesting about this is that these folks here it is our all economists, to at MIT and one at the University of Chicago and one at Carnegie Mellon, the top T of the economics profession and they are reaching this conclusion which seems contrary to what a lot of us learn in economics which is that the higher the reward the better the performance and they are saying that once you get above rudimentary cognitive skill it the other way around, which seems like the idea that these rewards don't work that way. It seems vaguely left-wing and a socialist, it's kind of this weird socialist conspiracy. For those of you who have those conspiracy theories I want to point out the left wing socialist group that finance the research, the Federal Reserved Bank. This is the mainstream of the mainstream coming to a conclusion that is quite surprising seems to be defiling the laws of behavioral physics. This is a strange finding so lets test it somewhere else because maybe that $50/$60 prize is not sufficiently motivating for an MIT student so let's go to a place where $50 is actually worth significant relatively. We are going to Madurai India(rural India) where $50/$60 is actually a significant amount of money. They're replicated the experiment in India roughly as follows: Low is performance the equivalent of two weeks salary, medium performance is equivalent of one month salary and high performance is equivalent to two months salary. What happened was the people offered the medium reward did no better than the people offered the small reward  but this time around the people offered the top reward they did worst of all. The high incentives led to worse performance. What is interesting about this is that it isn't at all anomalous. It's been repucated over and over again by psychologists, by sociologists and by economists over and over again, for simple straightforward tasks those kinds of incentives if you do this then you get that they're great for task that are algorithmic, a set of rules where you have to just follow along and get a right answer, if then, rewards , carrots on sticks, outstanding. When a task it's more complicated it requires some conceptual creative thinking those kind of motivators demonstratively don't work. 

Fact, money is a motivator expert but in a slightly strange way if you don't pay people enough they wont be motivated. What's curious about it is there's another paradox here that if you don't use money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they're not thinking about money, they are thinking about the work. Once you do that it turns out that there are three factors that science shows that lead to a better  performance and personal satisfaction.
Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.


Autonomy is already desired to be self-directed and to direct our own lives. In many ways traditional notions of management run foul of that. Management is great if you want compliance but if you want engagement which is what we want in the workforce today as people are doing more complicated and sophisticated things. Self-direction is better. Let me give you some examples of those radical forms of self-direction in the workplace that leads to good results. Let's start with this company here Atlassian and Australian company which is a software company and they do something really cool. On a Thursday afternoon they said to their developers for the next 24 hours you can work on anything you want, you can work on it the way you want, you can work on it with whoever you want, all we ask is that you show the results to the company at the end of the 24 hours in this fun kind of meeting not a Star chamber session but this fun meeting with beer and cake and other things like that. It turns out that that one day of pure undiluted autonomy has led to a whole array of fixes for existing software, whole array of ideas for new products that otherwise would have never emerged. This is not a "if then" incentive, this is not the sort of thing that I would've done three years ago before I knew this research. I would have said if you want people to be creative and innovative give them an innovation bonus, if you even something cool I'll give you $2500. They are not doing this at all they are essentially saying you probably want to do something interesting... Let me just get out ofyoue way. One day of autonomy produces things that never emerged.


Mastery is an urge to get better at stuff. We like to get better at stuff. This is why people play musical instruments on the weekend. You have all these people acting in ways that seem irrational economically. Like play musical instruments on the weekend, why? It's not going to make them any money, why are they doing it? Because it's fun, because you get better at it and that is satisfying. Let's go back in time a little bit, I imagine this if I go back to my first economics professor, woman named Mary Alice Showman. I went to her in 1983 and said "professor Showman can I talk to you for second after class?  I got this idea for a business model and I want to run it past you, this is how it would work,You get a bunch of people around the world, we are doing highly skilled work, but they are willing to do it for free and volunteer their time 20 sometimes 30 hours per week and then what they create they give it away rather than sell it. It going to be huge! She truly thought I was insane, seem to find the face of so many things but what do you have you have Linex powering one out of four corporate servers and Fortune 500 companies and Apache hurrying more than the majority of Web servers, Wikipedia. What's going on? Why are people doing this? Why are these people, many of them are technically sophisticated, highly skilled people who have jobs. They are working in jobs for pay doing sophisticated, technological work and yet they are on their limited discretional time, they do equally if not more sophisticated work, not for their employer but for someone else for free. That's a strange economic behavior, economists have looked into it. Why are they doing this? It is overwhelmingly clear, challenge and mastery along with making a contribution along with making a contribution. Once you see more and more is a rise of what you may call  purpose motive. More and more organizations want to some kind of  a transcendent purpose partly because it makes a community work better, partly because that is the way to get better talent and what we are saying now is that in some ways when the profit motive becomes  unmoored from the purpose motive bad things happen, but things ethically sometimes but also bad things just like not good stuff like crappy products, like lame services, like uninspiring places to work, that when the profit motive is paramount or when it becomes completely unhitched from the purpose motive people don't do great things. More and more organizations are realizing this and they are disturbing the categories between whats profit and  what's purpose and I think that really heralds something interesting and I think that the company is and the organizations that are flourishing whether it's profit for profit or somewhere in between are animated by this purpose.let me give you a couple of examples. Here is the founder of Skype. He says our goal is to be disruptive but in the cause of making the world a better place. Hair is Steve Jobs, I want to put a Ding the universe. That's the kind of thing that might get you up in the mornings and erasing to go to work. I think that we are purpose maximizers not only profit maximizers. I think the science shows that we care about mastery very deeply and the science shows that we want to be self-directed and I think that the big take away here is that if start treating people like people and not assuming that they are simply horses, slower, smaller better smelling horses. If we get past this ideology and look at the science I think that we can actually build organizations and work lives make us better off but I also think we have a promise to make our world just a little bit better!

video version

Dan Pink's talk about  the hidden truths what motivates us.

This RSA Animate, adapted from Dan Pink's talk.

The End
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Friday, April 28, 2017 is the most flexible business management system, set of tools: Customer Relationship Management with focus on Theories of motivation, Enterprise Content Management System with focus on Theories of motivation and more serving the entire U.S., including the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Miami, Tampa, Phoenix, Cleveland, and San Francisco as well as Fairfield County, CT, Westchester County, NY and Rockland County, NY.


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