The carrot, the stick….or something else?

‘If you do this…then you get that…’ GREAT, you might think, but is it? the old ‘If/Then’ rewards mechanism has come under increasing scrutiny as the way we think about and sustain our motivation has changed in line with the kinds of jobs we are doing.

To elaborate; if/then rewards were and are great for simple, short term, algorithmic tasks because it forces us to focus and lock in on the desired outcome. The more complex our roles become however, the less if/then rewards work because we cannot sustain that focus. Firstly we might burn out, but more importantly HOW we approach these tasks and what is required from us to get it done has changed. We can see therefore that the old carrot or stick ‘do this and get that’ is only useful for a shrinking number of tasks in the 21st century.

Similarly, the old ‘motivator’ of money often looses its salience in this more complex creative environment. Yes, if you want 40 widgets produced per hour, pay by the widget and pay more for over 40 widgets, but in a role where the output requires creativity and sustained effort or ingenuity, we need to create a system that focuses the mind on the work, not the reward. The motivator of money does not operate the way we think it does here – it is not about how much we get paid, it is about FAIRNESS- internal equity (my worth) and external equity (my value is recognised in relation to others)  – that allows us to dial down any grievances we may have about pay and can essentially take the issue off the table, clearing the way for our focus to be on the work.

Not only are we seeing increasingly complexity in our roles, but how these roles are ‘managed’ is evolving. Dan Pink, a leading psychologist and my inspiration for this piece, believes ‘management’ is is an outdated technology, historically used for organising people into productive capacities. It is designed to get compliance. The problem is that increasingly we, employees and employers alike, are looking for ENGAGEMENT, and we don’t engage by being managed or controlled. So how are we motivated to engage when if/then rewards and just paying people more no longer does the trick?

Pink’s answer? Simple, focus on AUTONOMY, MASTERY and PURPOSE.

If you ask a person to describe the best boss they ever had and the answer will most likely involve someone with high standards and who allows for you to have a level of autonomy – I know this is true for me (Thanks Amanda!). Giving people more control over their time, who they work with, and how they go about their tasks can have a huge impact on their level of engagement. The best example Pink uses here to illustrate is the Netflix relaxed expenses policy, arguing their employees will ‘act in the companies best interests’ because they do not want to abuse the trust placed in them by the company.

Autonomy aside, another huge motivator, and again I know this to be true for me, is making progress in meaningful work. This is intellectually satisfying and can really fire you up to keep going. The challenge here is this does rely on feedback, which is often in rare supply in most organisations (unless you have a boss like Amanda, again, thanks!). Pink suggests the key to this is changing up how we give feedback and when (1-1’s with a twist or a theme, or even standing up!), making it easier to have discussions on the relevance of the work we are doing and how we are getting on that are not tied up in the once a year formal performance review. Get into a progress ritual where you record your progress regularly, and share it with your peers and leaders to keep the fire in the engine lit and the train going in the right direction (to borrow a metaphor from my father).

Finally lets think about purpose (am I making a contribution?) and Purpose (am I making a difference?) . Pink argues we need to spend more time thinking about the WHY, not the HOW and eliminating the barriers between customers and employees to raise the salience of purpose and understand better who our work is ultimately servicing or benefiting. Engagement now is inextricably linked in the minds of many to purpose, and employers are becoming more aware that they need to be better prepared to harness this motivator in the workplace and understand its power as a motivator.

Autonomy, Mastery, P(p)urpose…. sounds much better than the carrot, and most definitely better than the stick!




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