My wife returned from a recent Texas Association of School Boards meeting in Houston and told me about a talk give by Dan Pink on the subject of motivation. As a subscriber to the TED Blog, I remembered that Dan Pink had also presented at TED, so I turned to my laptop to search for and then view the TED presentation. Dan presents some findings in motivation research that are apparently well-known in the community of social science researchers, but not very well-known in the business community. Those lessons could be valuable to you as you search for ways to motivate your workforce.
Dan talks about a psychological experiement called “the candle problem” in which a person is brought into a room, given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and matches and asked to attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn’t drip onto the table. The person who can solve the candle problem is one who sees the box as more than a receptacle for the tacks and understands that it can be part of the problem’s solution. The box is tacked to the wall and the candle is placed on the box.
Pink says that the experiment is used to measure the impact of incentives. Two groups of people are offered the problem. — the first group is timed and the second group is timed and offered rewards for fast completion. The surprising result is that it takes the second group, on average, three and a half more minutes than the first group, to solve the problem.
The finding is that in this setting, incentives actually dull thinking and block creativity. And Pink says that other experiments confirm this result and that this is one of the most robust findings in social science. He notes that there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does to motivate its employees.
Pink also describes a slightly different experiment where the tacks are taken out of the box. In this experiment, the rewarded group does much better. It’s an easier problem with the parts of the solution clearly visible to the group members, and in these situations with a narrow focus, where creativity is not required, the incentives work well.
Dan says that around the world white collar workers are doing much more of the creative work and much less of the narrow-focus work, but our incentives for those employees have not changed. For those employees, the “if-then” rewards are not effective. In fact, in another study, the experimenters found that if the task is only a mechanical skill, then rewards mean better performance. But if any cognitive skill is needed to complete the task, a larger reward means worse performance. Pink says that science knows that rewards only work to solve narrow problems, and they actually destroy the creativity needed to solve most of the problems encountered in business situation.
How do you motivate your employees? Do you expect creative solutions and innovative thinking, but try to motivate your employees with rewards based on narrowly-focused performance measures? If you do, your incentives could actually be stifling creativity and innovation in your employees.
If your employee incentive and motivation programs are not having the desired results, call Rust Reviews for help.