“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.