What Really Motivates Employees to Perform?

November 9, 2010

The New York Times best selling book Drive by by Daniel H. Pink has stimulated me and supported some of my own ideas as to what truly motivates people. It is not necessarily rewards or punishment – carrot or stick.

The New York Times best selling book Drive by by Daniel H. Pink has stimulated me and supported some of my own ideas as to what truly motivates people. It is not necessarily rewards or punishment – carrot or stick. Pink challenges long-held beliefs that employees are much more internally motivated “purpose maximizers” than externally motivated “wealth or profit maximizers”. That is, above a certain salary compensation level, pay incentives, such as bonuses, provide little motivation. Instead Pink proposes the motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

This idea challenges traditional pay-for-performance motivational methods, and it appears to run counter to the thinking espoused in balanced scorecards using key performance indicators (KPIs). With further thinking, in my opinion this does not mean scorecards and KPIs are not effective. In fact, just the opposite. They remain critical, but I view their role is more for communicating an executive team’s strategy to employees in a way that employees can understand it and providing the necessary steering and controlling to achieve the strategy.

Before re-visiting this topic of KPIs, I will summarize Pink’s three elements of motivation and directly quote sections from his book without quotation marks. He gets the credit.

Pink’s three elements of motivation

Autonomy is different than being independent, and encouraging it does not mean discouraging accountability for results. Autonomy is intended to allow self-direction presuming the next two elements are present. The opposite of autonomy is being controlled which leads to compliance. Autonomy leads to being engaged and encourages creativity and innovation.

Mastery is for those who enjoy fulfillment. It is more than satisfying demands of those in control. Mastery is painful like physical exercise. The heart of mastery is continuously getting better at something you care about.

Purpose is in our nature. Of this tripod of three elements, purpose provides context for the other two. From childhood on we are all active and curious. The most deeply motivated people pursue a cause larger than themselves.

Challenged beliefs of motivation

Pink’s central idea is there is gap between what science knows and what organizations actually do. He begins the book to prove his points by comparing Microsoft’s failed MSN Encarta encyclopedia with the Website Wikipedia. The former paid experts to construct whereas the latter relies on volunteers to contribute. Which one succeeded?

Describing numerous experiments Pink reveals that “if-then” coercive consequences are only effective as motivators in a narrow range of circumstances. In many cases they become disincentives that crush individual’s creative abilities. High performance thrives from the drive in individuals to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose. This confirms what many us of already know in our hearts.

Not everyone agrees with Pink. Author and consultant Aubrey C. Daniels debates Pink by stating “What is (more) needed is a clear understanding of the science of behavior, and how to arrange motivational systems, clearly understood, to produce the behaviors needed in complex settings.” Daniels is an advocate of positive reinforcement to get more of the behavior you want. I won’t get in the middle of the debate. I simply believe they are both onto something important.

What does any of this have to do with constructing enterprise performance management systems embedded with business analytics? Plenty. The goal of analytics-based performance management is to gain insights and solve problems, to encourage creativity and innovation, to make better and faster decisions with more accurate and fact-based data, and to take actions. Traditional managerial motivational techniques presume that employees are generally passive and need to be nudged – wagon-pulling horses pursuing a carrot. But if we remember our childhood of exploring, testing, and discovering, those were rich experiences – and they are the bedrock of business analytics.

As adults we should not just seek validation from others, but listen to our own voice. Doing something that matters; doing it well; and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves. Strategy maps and KPIs provide direction, steering, and feedback. Perhaps we should view them less as something to control people for compliance and more to assist in our innate humankind – to be active and engaged with a purpose. This can then lead to sustained organizational improvement.