Motivation, Dan Pink and EQ

Money is a motivator. It matters and it makes a difference. People want to be paid a fair wage for the work they do and they want to do a good job.

Last week at the EQ Summit, Dan Pink spoke about this topic he has delivered time and again. And time and again he repeats the same message. When a task is simple, doesn’t involve a lot of thinking power and is quite rudimentary, then pay can motivate. If you need envelopes stuffed, then pay by the envelope not by the hour. If you need strawberries picked, pay per strawberry or punnet, not by the hour. If you need data entry being completed, pay for each complete data set, not by the hour.

When the task becomes more complex, and this is purposefully vague, is when pay stops being a motivator. Why? Because we’re too drawn to the money and forget about the task. Humans are simple beings. When you mix simplicity with complexity you get confusion, incongruency and strange behaviour. His message was simple. Pay people a fair wage so that money isn’t as much of an issue as it could be and that people can focus on the work.

This really isn’t a message which has penetrated big business at all. Bonus schemes, pay brackets and pay ceilings are very accepted. There are few companies and organisations who don’t follow this model. The performance factors that determine bonus payments are normally about service delivery and less often about the relationships people genuinely build or about the positive impact on others.

Ok, let’s move on from there.

Dan gave some great examples of controlled studies where they wanted to see the impact of purpose on the output a person achieves. At a university, past students are often asked to donate back to the university to support the future education of present students. The people who ring and ask for these donations were split into three groups. Group 1 were given a standard letter to read about the job role. Group 2 were given a letter to read from previous students who carried out their role explaining why it was important for them. Group 3 were given a letter from students who benefited directly from these donations and helped them achieve career ambitions as a direct results. Group 2 clearly did better than Group 1, but the surprising result was Group 3 achieved 25% more donations than Group 1.

Go on, chew that over for a moment.

When we talk about purpose at work, and you have big corporate machines in place whose sole purpose is to make profit and pay out to shareholders, how are you going to help the workforce find their ultimate purpose? It’s most likely easier in health, care, education, public service, and charity/not for profit sectors. People are already there because they want to be, or see how they are affecting people’s daily lives positively. But in an oil shore rig or a media organisation or a bank? I’m not sure how people find their purpose in those environments.

When talking about autonomy, Dan started by talking about the design of management as a technology. Its purpose was to command and control the workforce and produce tangible results like building railways, manufacturing cars, running management accounts and the such likes. The challenge over time was that this technology didn’t keep up with the changing times. It has persisted and hung around like a bad odour that you can’t get rid of.

Now, I’m actually an advocate of management, but think the role of managers and the role of management has significantly changed and today doesn’t resemble half as much as what it used to look like.

What we haven’t done well in this space is to rethink how people are engaged and how managers are a vital role in this. When you ask someone what made a great manager, very few will explain it was the way they managed every part of your job role, that they never gave you feedback or that they made all the decisions so you didn’t have to. Linked to that are processes like performance reviews, recruitment and staff benefits. Very few companies are innovating in these spaces, and most are just iterating on variations that have hung around for the last 20-30 years if not more. Not helped by vendors in the market who aren’t pushing the boat on these agendas too.

In the panel session, I asked the question of how to sell the idea of EQ, motivation and empathy to senior managers who think this is happy clappy nonsense. Dan’s response was probably the best. He said first we need to be talking in terms of results and outputs, not the methodologies. That is, “we can increase donations/sales/other by X% by helping people see the impact of the work they do” is a more tangible argument than “there’s a lot of great research on motivation which we really need to pay attention to in engaging the workforce”. His second point was to go for small gains. If we can show the impact of small interventions it’s easier to prove how these things work rather than go for large scale wins.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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