The Motivation Illusion & Creativity

Posted on January 30, 2017

Motivation is defined in psychological terms as the inner or social stimulus for an action.” A motivated team results in: a highly productive workforce, lower turnover and overall performance improvement, but it also means that at the individual level, your employees are driven to work at their peak level of performance and creativity- bringing the most of themselves forward. But what practices are out there that inspire motivation in the work place?

While a lot of people discuss types of motivation programs such as bonuses, commissions, “Employee of the Month” and other displays of recognition, appreciation and acknowledgement, TedTalk speaker Dan Pink, looks at the science of motivation and explains that leaders today are approaching motivation all wrong, and here’s why.

Pink argues that motivation can be split into two types: extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivation can be described in terms of ‘carrot vs stick’. Intrinsic motivation refers to the motivating forces of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

  • Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.
  • Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Pink states “intrinsic motivators are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for organisations.” Sceptical? Let’s take a look at an example of one of the many studies done on the motivation illusion.

Scientist Sam Glucksberg gathered participants together and split them into two groups. To the first group he said: “I’m going to time you to see how quickly you can solve a problem.” To the second group he set the same task, but this time, he offered rewards- “$5 for those who solve the problem within 25% of the fastest time and $20 for reaching the fastest time of everyone.”

The group he offered rewards to took on average 3.5mins longer to solve the problem. This experiment has been replicated repeatedly for nearly 40 years, from which it can be concluded that although extrinsic motivators work in some circumstances, for a lot of tasks, (particularly those involving cognitive skills) they actually either don’t work or, often, they do harm. There is thus a big gap between what science knows and what business does.

Pink’s study into the science of motivation can be summarised as the following:

  • 20th century extrinsic motivators only work in a narrow band of circumstances.
  • If-Then rewards kill creativity
  • The secret to high performance is unseen intrinsic drives, those being: autonomy, mastery and sense of purpose.

What can leaders then do to ensure they are getting the most out of their team? Let’s go back to the notion referred to in the psychological definition of motivation: ‘inner stimulus’. Inspirational leaders can motivate their team by investing time in empowering each member of the organisation to align themselves with their own sense of purpose, mastery and autonomy. This means leaders need to get curious and create space for employees to discover and inject passion, self-direction and purpose into their work.

Image source: Luke Pamer

Here are examples Pink references which show how different companies are creating conditions for intrinsic motivation to inspire business growth and creativity:

A few times a year this Australian software company tells their engineers, “go for the next 24 hours and work on anything you want, as long as it’s not part of your regular job.” Engineers use this time to come up with a cool patch for code, an elegant hack etc. Then they present all that they’ve developed to their teammates, and to the rest of the company, Atlassian call these 24hours ‘FedEx Days’ because you have to deliver something overnight. That one day of intense autonomy produces a whole array of software fixes that might never have existed.

20% time — engineers can spend 20% of their time working on anything they want. They have autonomy over their time, their task, their team, their technique. About half of the new products in a typical year are birthed during that 20% time: things like Gmail, Orkut, Google News.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the building blocks of a new way of catalysing motivation and creativity in the 21st century organisation, and inspirational leadership involves creating the space and context for employees to act from these inner motivating forces.

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