How many of these 7 deadly flaws are you committing in your business?

Do you think your business would be different if you knew what really drives your people to reach their peak potential? It’s not what you think!

Most business leaders have lost sight of what motivates people at work.

In fact, some companies haven’t updated their management practices in years, which means they’re incapable of creating high-performance teams. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, former U.S. Department of Labor aide Daniel H. Pink says businesses commit “seven deadly flaws”:

  1. Extinguishing motivation
  2. Diminishing performance
  3. Crushing creativity
  4. Crowding out good behavior
  5. Encouraging cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior
  6. Becoming addictive, obsessive
  7. Fostering short-term thinking

So, how can you boost the number of actively engaged employees from the paltry 33 percent reported by the Gallup Organization? First, let’s take a historical look at workplace motivation theory.

Harvard Weighs In

In the 1920s, Harvard Business School initiated the first studies of human behavior at work.

Researchers found that workers’ and managers’ social needs had a powerful impact on their behavior. Workers enthusiastically embraced opportunities to contribute their thoughts, ideas and experiences regarding workplace issues.

Unfortunately, these findings failed to change work conditions for employees.

Scientific Management

At the beginning of the 20th century, American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor asserted that businesses were being run in inefficient, haphazard ways. He invented the concept of “scientific management,” which assumed workers were little more than machines.

To make the machine run smoothly, you rewarded the behaviors you wanted and punished those you discouraged. Thus began the firmly entrenched practice of motivating people with the proverbial carrots and sticks.

Maslow & McGregor

In the 1950s, psychologist Abraham Maslow questioned the idea that human behavior was purely rat- or pigeon-like. He launched the field of humanistic psychology, proposing that once survival needs were met, people sought to achieve self-mastery and actualization.

In the 1960s, MIT management professor Douglas McGregor imported Maslow’s ideas to the business world. He proposed that humans had higher drives that weren’t contingent on rewards and punishments. If managers could tap into these inner motivations and grant employees greater autonomy and respect, workers would unleash greater performance.

While McGregor’s writing influenced some organizations, there were only modest improvements—mostly more flexible dress codes, working conditions and empowerment programs.

The Third Drive

In 1949, psychologist Harry Harlow placed puzzles in monkeys’ cages and was surprised to find that the primates successfully solved them.

Harlow saw no logical reason for their motivation. The monkeys’ survival didn’t depend on it, and they didn’t receive any rewards or avoid any punishments.

Harlow offered a novel theory: “The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.” The monkeys performed because they found it gratifying to solve puzzles.

Further experiments found that offering external rewards to solve these puzzles didn’t improve performance. In fact, rewards disrupted task completion.

This led Harlow to identify a third drive in human motivation:

  1. The first drive for behaviors is survival. We drink, eat and copulate to ensure our survival.
  2. The second drive is to seek rewards and avoid punishment.
  3. The third drive is intrinsic: to achieve internal satisfaction.

But Harlow’s theory was met with disdain from the behavioral scientists who dominated motivational theory at the time. It took almost two decades for scientists to return their attention to intrinsic drives.

Negative Impact of Rewards

In 1969, psychologist Edward Deci ran a series of experiments that showed students lost intrinsic interest in an activity when money was offered as an external reward. The results surprised many behavioral scientists.

Although rewards can deliver a short-term boost, the effect wears off. Even worse, rewards can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue a project.

Deci proposed that human beings have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.

Open Source Innovations

The third drive has become more important as our society moves from a manufacturing-based economy to one of knowledge and services.

As proof, examine the case of two companies that set out to publish online encyclopedias:

  1. Microsoft hired the best people and devoted considerable funds to achieve Encarta.
  2. A global force of volunteers created Wikipedia with no budget or salaries.

Encarta no longer exists, while Wikipedia thrives as a fully functional volunteer project.

Still, most businesses continue to pursue short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of evidence against them.

Unleashing Motivation

Pink describes three critical conditions for an intrinsic motivational environment:

  1. Autonomy: Give people autonomy over what they’re doing and how they do it, including choosing their time, tasks, team and techniques.
  2. Mastery: Give them an opportunity to master their work and make progress through deliberate practice.
  3. Purpose: Make sure people have a sense of purpose in their work—preferably to something higher and beyond their job, salary and company.

People are most productive when their work puts them in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of “flow”—more commonly recognized as being “in the zone.” Flow can be achieved only when leaders provide autonomy, time to practice and improve mastery, and a sense of higher purpose.

Sadly, intrinsic motivation theories aren’t palatable to everyone. Our notions of what constitutes proper motivation are often too entrenched to be flexible. Some companies have given lip service to worker “empowerment,” without actually letting go of control.

How much are short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes costing you—in the face of all evidence against them?

Many leaders will resist giving up their carrots, and many workers will find it hard to imagine a world without incentives. But leaders who can implement intrinsic motivation can expect a whole new workplace—and an entirely new definition of work.

Call me if you’d like to increase productivity and jumpstart a renewed sense of optimism within your organization by exploring coaching for individuals and teams.

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