What Really Motivates Us?

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By John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog.

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The quotes of Dan Pink from the webcast are backed by decades of research and support W. Edwards Deming’s views on managing people.

  • “We are not as endlessly manipulatable and predictable as you would think.”
  • “Once a task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill a larger reward led to poorer performance.”
  • “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.”
  • “3 factors lead to better performance: autonomy, mastery and purpose”
  • “When the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen.”
  • “If we start treating people like people… get past this ideology of idea of carrots and sticks and look at the science we can actually build organization and work lives that make us better off, but I also think they have the promise to make our world just a little bit better.”

Understanding psychology is an important competent of Dr. Deming’s management system. Some of these ideas come naturally to many people. Those people understand that organizations often stifle the natural gifts people want to apply at work. They can set to work dismantling the systemic de-motivation engrained in many management systems when given the opportunity.

But often we don’t question how things have been done. We are often so blind to poor practices we don’t even question them. Those practices are just accepted, without even reflecting on the merits of the practices. Recently Dan Pink has been pushing us to question our practices on motivation as many have done before, including Alfie Kohn – who was widely referenced by those applying Deming’s ideas over the past few decades. Alfie’s book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, is particularly good.

Douglas Mcgregor’s 1960 book The Human Side Of Enterprise provides an excellent view into managing people at work. He argues that managers should start with the premise that work is a natural part of human life and people want to work. Manager’s job is to help them do so by setting up systems that support this and removing barrier that prevent people from doing so.

The popularity of Scott Adams’ Dilbert shows that many people understand (and experience) de-motivation he highlights the comic strip.

The way to great performance is creating systems that allow people autonomy and let them pursue mastery and purpose. Extrinsic motivation is not an effective way to cover management system faults that cripple intrinsic motivation.

Related: The Trouble with Incentives: They WorkW. Edwards Deming on the problems with targets or goalsReward and Incentive Programs are Ineffective, Even Harmful by Peter Scholtes – When Performance-related Pay Backfires

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