Manny García-Tuñón: The new science of motivation for the 21st century

07/27/2014 1:00 PM

07/27/2014 2:35 PM

If you think you know what motivates your team to perform at their absolute best, think again. New research indicates that traditional incentive programs don’t work like they used to.

I recently saw a presentation by career analyst Daniel Pink on the science of motivation — a topic that should be of specific interest to anyone in business, particularly business owners and managers.

Pink, an attorney, spent several years examining what he refers to as the puzzle of motivation, and has come up with a strong case against traditional rewards systems that most businesses — indeed, most of us — currently use. Relying only on verifiable facts, Pink argues that traditional rewards aren’t always as effective as we think — especially as business tasks evolve into the 21st century.

Citing an experiment conducted by scientist and Princeton professor Sam Glux-berg which concluded that, today, traditional incentive programs actually have the opposite effect than they’re intended to produce, Pink states: “If you want people to perform better, you reward them, right? Bonuses, commissions, their own reality show . . . Incentivize them. That’s how business works . . .

“But that’s not happening here. You’ve got an incentive designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, and it does just the opposite. It dulls thinking and blocks creativity. These contingent motivators that state, ‘If you do this, then you get that,’ work in some circumstances, but for a lot of tasks they either do not work, or often they do harm.”

The important implication that the science community has uncovered, yet the business community continues to ignore, is that while the way we do business has evolved as a result of technology and globalization, the ways we motivate and incentivize our teams have not.

The key to incentive programs for nonmechanical tasks no longer lies in contingent motivators, but in intrinsic motivators based on the desire to do things the right way because they matter, because they’re interesting, and because they’re important.

As a result, Pink recommends that we build a new operating system for our businesses based on three elements: autonomy — the desire to direct our own lives; mastery — the desire to improve at something that matters; and purpose — the desire to do what we do in the service of something greater than ourselves.

If we were to look at our businesses in the light if these three elements, we would find key areas where we could improve our human resource management, our business relationships and, therefore, our productivity:

• Hire only the most qualified people. One of the most effective managers I know once told me that his secret was to only hire people who were smarter and better suited for the task at hand than he was. Who you hire affects how you manage because of the correlation of autonomy, mastery and purpose. These three elements are essential for ensuring that the people you bring into your organization fit within your corporate culture.
• Know what to expect from each individual. There’s a fine line between expectation and conformity when it comes to team performance. In business, while conformity is intrinsically evil, expectations must be realistic. Effective managers know how to place people in positions where they can succeed; otherwise, performance deficiency stops being an employee problem and becomes a management problem.
• Know what to communicate. Of all the things an effective manager can communicate, the most important is vision — and vision must be communicated with conviction. Eighteenth-century French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand once said, “I am more afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep.” When team members embrace a common vision, they bring passion to what they do. The desire to better ourselves while being part of something greater than ourselves is part of human nature.

Providing opportunities for personal and professional growth by contributing to the organization’s greater good is an excellent way to help your team members tap into the inherent power of motivation they have inside. Passion fuels their sense of purpose — and when that happens, there’s no telling what your team can accomplish.

Manny García-Tuñón is a business columnist for el Nuevo Herald and president of Lemartec, an international design-build firm headquartered in Miami. He can be reached at manny@mgtunon.com and www.mgtunon.com.

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