Motivation: What Puts People in High Gear?

It may not be what you think.

Motivation What Puts People in High Gear

A company hired a writer to boost its online visibility, but no one there had ever worked with a writer before. On the writer’s first day, his manager pointed to a work station and said, in effect, “Go to it.”

Without instructions or deadlines, the writer was free to add articles to the company’s website. He chose all his own topics and photos and made his own decisions on story length, tone, headlines and subjects to interview.

The result? In a year, the website’s readership went from zero to half a million. In the next six months, the website rose to the number one position in its field as the result of an online search on the web.

Later, a law firm made him an offer to double his salary. He took the job, but soon came to realize the new firm’s methods allowed much less creative freedom. Whenever the writer penned an article, one of the law partners would pull up a chair next to his and go over the copy, line by line, dictating things like paragraph length and photo selection. After two days at the firm, the writer quit and asked for his old job back.

What forces brought the first website to the top of its industry? And what forces drove the writer away from the law firm with its fat paycheck? If money doesn’t float everyone’s boat, then what is it that motivates people to do their best?

Motivation and Productivity

Daniel Pink, who once worked in the White House as U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s chief speechwriter, became interested in how and why people work. In his 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he writes that most people think money is the ultimate motivation. But Pink often refers to that kind of thinking as being closely akin to the carrot-and-stick approach some employers use to motivate their employees to do their best.

That approach may have worked from the 17th through the 20th century, when basic needs such as food, shelter and clothing could easily go unmet. But money alone does not motivate today’s workforce. In fact, Pink contends a money- first motivation squashes creativity and leads to lackluster performances and unethical, and sometimes risky, behavior.

So what happened to employee morale and productivity once routine work became less tiresome and more meaningful and self-directed?

According to Pink, humans are driven to productivity when one—they enjoy their work, two—the work is the right thing to do or, three—because the work is important. Three factors work to make that possible: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

A Winning Work Life

Autonomy involves an innate desire to control one’s own life. Mastery is the satisfaction of being good at what you do, especially if it matters. Purpose is doing things larger than ourselves.

Pink suggests people work better when they have some freedom to control their destiny, mastery over what they do and a clear understanding of why certain tasks are important and how they fit in a larger context. And there’s no one-size-fitsall approach. In Drive, Pink writes that a money-first approach may work well for, say, a teen who routinely cuts lawns for a low wage, but not well at all for someone who does complicated, creative work.

But even with some routine jobs, letting workers decide how and why they are doing the task is motivating. For instance, have you ever received a call from a telemarketer at a call center who recites from a prepared script? Or, worse, a pre-recorded sales pitch that involves no actual human? If you’re like most people, you immediately hang up.

What Motivates You?

In an interview on U.S. National Public Radio, Pink spoke of how instilling motivation can be like education: neither is something that one person does to another. But both are something that people can do for themselves.

Atlassian, a software firm with offices in many countries, allows workers to spend 20 percent of their work time on pet projects. The firm drives home the message of how it creates “products that help … advance humanity through the power of software” by appealing to personal values.

A short film on the firm’s website lets job-seekers see company software in action, say for instance, powering and guiding robots that are used in places where it’s unsafe for people to work. Is that not a good reason to buy into writing code for that company?

That pitch, given to new employees and worked into company speeches, fits Pink’s concepts of persuasion and motivation well because it fits with people’s sense of purpose.

About the Author

Charles Downey

Charles Downey is a syndicated journalist, magazine writer and book author living in Southern California.