Archive | May 2015

Abundancy In Full Circle

When we enter the world, are we wired to be passive and inert? Or are we wired to be active and engaged?” I can’t imagine anyone with a functioning mind would answer the former. And as adults, wouldn’t we prefer to work in the latter mode, engaging our minds to be in charge?

One of the comparisons I learned from Mr. Dan Pink’s TED talk on motivation and his book, Drive, has become my favorite: In 1995, Microsoft began a monumental project to assemble the information needed for their “encyclopedia on CD-ROMs, and later online.” “On October 31st, 2009, [they] pulled the plug on MSN Encarta.” Because? A bunch of hobbyists and volunteers put together a little thing called “Wikipedia,” launched in January, 2001. As of April, 2015, “Wikipedia includes over 35 million freely usable articles in 288 languages that have been written by over 54 million registered users and numerous anonymous contributors worldwide.” Would any experts in economics or management have predicted this?



Jeff Gunther, CEO of Meddius, in Charlottesville, NC., decided to try a ROWE model – a Results Only Work Environment – on his 22-person operation, allowing people to come in to the office whenever. At the beginning, most people were uncertain about this, but after a few weeks, they adjusted to it. “Productivity rose. Stress declined.” When the trial period was over, only 2 employees who struggled with the changes had left, and Gunther decided to adopt the ROWE permanently. This company develops computer software, involving creativity; the ROWE makes perfect sense. When people have autonomy over their own task, time, techniques, and team, their performance increases greatly, as well as their overall well-being. Some researchers at Cornell University conducted a comparison across 320 small businesses, half of which relied on a top-down conventional organizational model and the other half gave their employees autonomy. “The businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the turnover.”

What conventional motivational approaches have been good at is to get employees’ compliance. “Do this, then you get that reward…” It chokes creativity and dulls people’s minds and skills. Of course, we may still push ourselves to better our performance, but it’s likely to be small incremental steps. However, if we feel totally engaged at work, we have the desire to master our knowledge and skills. In his book, Mr. Pink cites Gallup research on “engagement” at work: “…in the U.S., more than 50% of employees are not engaged at work – and nearly 20% are actively disengaged. The cost of all this disengagement: about $300 billion a year in lost productivity – a sum larger than the GDP of Portugal, Singapore, or Israel.”

There are times and places for relying on a compliance mode, in survival, in safety, in routine work with predictable outcomes. But for creative work, personal fulfillment, or mastery, we absolutely need to feel engaged. (How often do I use the word “absolutely” in discussing social issues?!) And we can’t force others to be engaged; it has to come from an internal drive. It’s about “doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” (Maybe that’s why I sometimes question whether I truly love painting!) In addition, mastery isn’t about the be-all-end-all perfection; it’s striving toward that non-existing and elusive “perfection,” whose definition evolves with our development. Such a journey might be painful at times, but when the mind is engaged, it can be paradoxically liberating and exciting. (See Carol Dweck’s work).

We tend to assume that the purpose/goal for for-profit organizations is making a profit, and that people working for these places are about making as much money as possible. However, “profit motive, potent though it is, can be an insufficient impetus for both individuals and organizations.” This isn’t just idealistic talk; there is research evidence that when people are motivated by only material gains, their “goal” is essentially unreachable, their need is unfulfillable and therefore, they can never be happy. In one of my dissertation cases, a café owner’s mother demanded at least three gifts from her children annually, for her birthday, for mother’s day, and for Christmas (even though the family was Buddhist). And anything less than $500 (back in the mid 90s) would be deemed insufficient. Yet, the mother was not a happy person; she was never satisfied with her living conditions.

Of all three elements in Motivation 3.0, autonomy, mastery, and purpose, purpose is probably the most amorphous one to define, yet is probably the most foundational in providing meaning for the other two. However, organizations imposing purpose onto their employees do so at their own peril. Just take a look at all those “elegantly” written ethical standards at many corporations – Enron offered one of the best – which then provide meaningless or weak structures for employees to meet the standards. For example, when employees just need to check off a list of expectations they are rarely inspired to take the high road. Yet, as human beings, our innate nature is to seek and recognize, or create, our own purposes. If organizations offer people autonomy, they do not need to fret over providing purposes. Top management can define organizational purposes, but it’s up to the individuals to find the fit between their own goals and purposes and the organization’s.



I started my blog in October, 2011, introducing some bad management teaching and countering with description of abundancy mode, appreciative inquiry. Now I have come full circle with Dan Pink’s abundancy mode, “motivation 3.0.” While I admire Pink’s work – and I certainly have quoted him and used his work numerous times — the frequency with which I find myself repeating certain works and concepts has made me realize that perhaps I am running out of things to say. I think this is a good time to quit. Once in a while, I may “park” an article on this site because I need to get something off my chest, but the weekly posts will cease.

Thank you for reading my writing. I wish you well, in both your organizational life as well as your personal life.




Can We Please Let Go The Carrot-and-Stick Shtick?

When I read my previous post’s suggested article, How Successful People Overcome Toxic Bosses, I felt more depressed than hopeful. Evidently, there are a lot of horrible bosses out there, requiring us to develop strategies to keep them at bay. What a waste of energy and time, both of which are such precious resources for our work and life. A different perspective that places more responsibilities on bosses evokes in me a slightly more positive reaction. Managers who develop relationships with their direct reports approaching trusted “alliance” are in a better position to keep staff from quitting. Always easier said than done, right? But can we afford not trying?! For good reasons, I keep going back to Dan Pink’s articulation of autonomy, mastery, and purpose for his motivation 3.0 as the blueprint for managers to build a long-term healthy workforce.

In his 2011 book, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, Mr. Pink lays out in greater detail why and how autonomy, mastery, and purpose should replace the primitive “carrot-and-stick” motivation system, which he terms motivation 2.0 and, with slight tweaks, motivation 2.1. (Motivation 1.0 was hunter, predator and survival instinct…really old). Largely relying on external motivational forces, the old systems worked for a time, but our new technologies have created needs for business models that embrace different ways people in the 21st century operate. Intrinsic motivation has always been a major part of us, but it’s especially critical in today’s business world.

imgresWhen Maslow proposed his “hierarchy of needs,” he had already offered a truer picture of the more complex nature of human motivation. His hierarchy starts with the most basic needs, food, security, shelter, etc., and moves up to self-esteem and self-actualization. Based on Maslow’s model, McGregor’s Theory Y posits that there is intrinsic motivation behind peoples’ desire to work; they want more responsibility (with authority) to do their work. Further, “carrot-and-stick” (C&S) ultimately limits a person’s productivity. And Theory Y was introduced in the 60s!

Yet, in 2015, we still see most organizations operating on C&S assumptions, even in the face of preponderant evidence demonstrating otherwise. In many new business models, such as Wikipedia or Google, “open source” is the operating principle; people join the force because they enjoy it or find it challenging. Other new business models, such as “social business,” aim to maximize purpose instead of profit; they downplay profit-making and emphasize social missions. Carrot-and-stick model is outmoded for these new types of business. In fact, the C&S model isn’t especially effective on animals, as horse and dog whispers have demonstrated to many pet owners; so what’s with managers who still hold onto C&S?images-6

So why doesn’t carrot-and-stick work well? It usually ends up with “giving us less of what we want and bringing us more of what we don’t want.”

All organizations, of all natures, want high performance, creativity, and good behavior from their employees. Numerous studies have found, time and again, that giving and increasing rewards, in the long run, reduces performance, creativity, and good behavior. Mark Twain, typically keen of observation, noted such a relationship in Tom Sawyer, “…that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.

In the early 70s, Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett, focusing on preschoolers, studied the relationship between reward and intrinsic motivation. This study is now considered a classic and has been widely cited. The researchers arranged to observe some preschoolers during their recess; they were intrigued to see some children preferring to stay behind and draw. So, they set up their research procedures in this manner: For one group of preschoolers, they offered the children, upon completing drawings, a “Good Player” certificate, complete with the child’s name with a pretty ribbon. This was the “expected-award” group. For the second group, “unexpected-reward,” the children only received the certificate when they finished their drawing; they were not told in advance that this would happen. And the third group, “no-reward” group, they just drew as they usually did.

Two weeks went by before the researchers returned to observe the children again. The No-Reward and the Unexpected-Reward groups of children drew just as much, with the same relish, as ever. However, the children who expected reward “showed much less interest and spent much less time drawing.”

Here is the important key to understand and grasp. The reward by itself didn’t dampen the children’s spirit; it’s the contingent if…then (if you do this, then you’ll get that) that produced the negative impact. It took away the children’s autonomy.

This research has been replicated in different manners on different age groups across different cultures numerous times. But as Mr. Pink said and wrote, “This is one of the most robust findings in social science – and also one of the most ignored.” Many economists have researched in the business settings, and their conclusion? “We find that financial incentives…can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”images-5

Please understand that no one is advocating not giving financial compensation, but when people’s basic levels, “baseline rewards,” are met, they yearn for better working conditions. It’s when people are underpaid, when they have to worry about how to feed themselves and/or their families (and shelter and security…Maslow’s basic needs) that they get angry at the “unfairness of their situation and the anxiety of their circumstances.” Employers get limited productivity from underpaid employees.

I’ve written often enough about how extrinsic motivation kills creativity (examples here & here), so I will not repeat that here.

Using carrots not only has limits, it can be counterproductive. Extrinsic motivation often gives us more of what we don’t want, such as unethical behavior or short-term thinking. For instance, if we make our own goals, we are motivated to reach them. If goals come from higher management, they can lead to bad outcomes. When Sears imposed a quota on auto sales parts, workers overcharged customers or repaired parts that didn’t need repaired. Enron set a very high financial goal, and guess what happened?! So, some business professors now actually suggest that goals should come with a warning label, “Goals may cause systematic problems for organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behavior, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation. Use care when applying goals in your organizations.” I wholeheartedly concur.

Next week, let’s take a closer look at autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Quitting a Job?!

“Even in the darkest days in the aftermath of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, 1.7 million Americans each month were willing to tell their bosses to ‘take this job and shove it.’” reports Eric Jackson in Forbes. And that number has been climbing steadily since 2009, a year after our second biggest financial calamity. In March of this year, just under 2.5 million Americans quit their jobs. Undoubtedly the percentages of quit jobs varies considerably across different professions. Very likely, the lower the skills required for a profession, the harder it is for the person to quit that job, which coincidently, correlates with wage level: It is much harder to leave a low-wage job during financial hard times.iris 4

However, regardless of the level of the job one quits, what’s the most common reason for such a daring act? It’s the boss! Most often one quits one’s boss, not one’s job. In most cases the new job is very similar to the job left behind, but hopefully one’s new boss is an improvement over the boss one has quit. Mr. Jackson offers eight reasons why people quit their bosses, and most of these reasons are intuitive and “obvious” (once the reasons are identified).

  1.  Overburdening people with more responsibilities…without proper compensation.

During financial hardships, we take for granted that organizations slash budgets and reduce staff size. Yet, these belt-tightening measures don’t immediately let up when economy turns positive. It is especially galling when the bosses don’t seem to work that much harder, or take financial losses proportionally to everyone else’s.

  1. Lack of clear directions, or directions are too diffuse and too changeable.

It’s bad enough when people don’t have a clear sense of where their work group is heading, or, when direction changes every six months. This bad situation is compounded when people have to work extra hours with neither monetary reward nor job satisfaction.

  1. Running horrible meetings. Who’d thought this could have long-lasting impact? (I would add: calling too many meetings.)

Mr. Jackson provides the example of Google’s Larry Page. In the early days of Google, Page’s idea of running a good meeting was to have people engage in arguments. This inevitably led to a sense of antagonism and “anything goes” chaos. I hypothesize that managers who don’t know how to provide big picture direction for the group or organization are likely to run meetings without clear boundaries or agenda.

  1. Promoting or hiring incompetent people. To this I add, promoting the “wrong” person over someone in the group who is more worthy is a proven way to drive away valuable employees.
  1. “Absent” managers. This doesn’t mean that the managers are not reporting for work, just that they are often absent from their offices and work groups. The situation is made worse when a manager baldly claims “My office door is always open.” In addition to not bothering to truly care for her people, she is now a hypocrite. An “absent” manager is likely out of touch with her people, and not surprisingly, promotes or hires “wrong” people.

Do not confuse “absent” managers with managers who “get out of people’s way…so they can get things done.” Absent managers do not engage with staff. A good manager knows his people and their work in order to be able to gauge when to stay out of the way.

  1. Micro-management. Yes, the degree of micro-management is a socially constructed reality. Still, managers who cannot help themselves in their need to review everyone’s work product, sign every document and approve every travel request, prevent their people from being effective in their work and finding reward in their employment.
  1. Disconnected from their direct reports’ career development. I further contend that both micro-managers and absent managers, because of their lack of good judgment, are in danger of ignoring or misdirecting their people’s career tracks.
  1. When a manager conveys that he’s more important than you are. How can any manager not understand the principle that “your people’s success is what makes you look good?” How does undermining your people’s work and success accomplish anything except lowering your performance evaluation? Logical conclusion: The insecure boss loses top performers in his group.

iris 1So, here are a couple of trick questions:

  1. If a manager loses his star employees at a rate of one per month, for four straight months, should the manager blame externalities for “luring away” his people? blame his direct reports for lacking loyalty? Or, should he take a good look in the mirror?
  1. What should the same manager do for his remaining staff? Monitor them even more closely? deliver stern lectures? separate them so that they can’t share “bad ideas?” conduct exit interviews? Actually, not a bad idea, but the manager from whom employees are fleeing really shouldn’t conduct exit interviews himself.

Next week, let’s look at what motivates people to want to stay and work. Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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