Remember the movie, Jerry McGuire, and the classic line, “Show me the money?” That may have been a big motivator for Cuba Gooding’s character, but like I’ve said before in this column, financial incentives are not the main motivators when it comes to employee engagement. If you doubt that premise, check out a presentation made at this year’s renowned TED Conference by Dan Pink – a leading expert in the science of human motivation. It’s 18 minutes long, and it’s worth every second.
Using research and humor, Pink makes a compelling case for the premise that financial incentives usually produce the opposite result you’d expect on engagement and performance. He starts with research dating back 60 years from an experiment created by Karl Duncker called “the candle problem.” Basically, people are challenged with figuring out how to attach a candle to the wall in way that would prevent wax from dripping on the table. Duncker found that most people struggled due to what he called functional fixedness – a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.” For example, if you need a paperweight, but you only have a hammer, you’ll have a hard time seeing it as a tool to hold down paper. Most people eventually figure it out, but it takes them a while to get it.
People aren’t always striving for the “prize.”
Years later, another researcher, Sam Gluxberg, decided to see how a monetary incentive would affect people’s performance on the candle problem. He told one group if they were among the fastest 25%, they would get $5.00. If they were the fastest in the entire group, they would receive $20.00. So naturally the people offered the incentives completed it faster, right? Wrong! In fact, they took an average of 3 1/2 minutes LONGER than those who were simply asked to perform the task as fast as possible, explaining simply that their results would be compared with the test standard.
As Pink points out, though, what these studies prove and what organizations do in response to that information are two different things. After decades of evidence from scientific studies like these, guess what? The main technique that’s used to boost performance today is still the usual array of bonuses and other financial incentives.
If money isn’t the answer, what is?
Pink says that intrinsic motivation will outstrip extrinsic motivation every time when it comes to boosting employee engagement. And the three main intrinsic motivators he’s identified are:
- Autonomy – people want to have some sense of independence and control over their work
- Mastery – they are motivated by opportunities to improve and excel
- Purpose – they are driven by what matters to them deeply and personally
Still don’t believe it? Check out Pink’s video – and then try your own experiment. Be prepared, though. You may have to change the way you think – or keep believing that extrinsic motivators are the keys to engagement, and hoping you’ll get lucky enough to beat the odds.
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