AHRI CEO Serge Sardo talks to Daniel Pink about why smart workers don’t perform well in controlling environments.
Serge Sardo: My feeling is, having read your recent book Drive, that BF Skinner will be turning in his grave. You pull apart the fundamental premise of behaviourism, where Skinner argues that we need to reward the behaviour we want more of and punish the behaviour we want less of. Why do you think behaviourism no longer has a place in business?
Daniel Pink: It’s not so much that I pulled it apart, other social scientists who followed on Skinner’s heels really pulled it apart. And they didn’t dismantle it immediately, this took 30 to 40 years. It’s the fact that the world of psychology and the understanding of human behaviour has gone way beyond Skinner and his rats.
It’s actually more nuanced. There are elements of behaviourism that are still effective in organisations. These very simple, mechanistic rewards are still very effective for very routine work, whether it’s in a blue-collar job turning the same screw in the same way on assembly line or in a white-collar job adding up columns of figures.
The challenge, in Australia, the US and elsewhere is that fewer people are doing that kind of work.
SS: But aren’t young children conditioned this way from a very early age, which means it’s necessary for business to adopt this model of reward and punishment?
DP: It’s not so much our families’ influence. It’s more about the influence of schools and businesses. These institutions were built for compliant, routine-oriented tasks. The logic behind these institutions has dissipated. A controlling environment gives people two options: it allows them to either comply or defy, when we really want them engaged. People don’t learn and do their best work under conditions of control.
SS: This type of employee motivation was very successful during the industrial revolution and in the 20th century. What’s changed that requires a complete departure from an operating system that has worked for a couple of hundred years?
DP: Our economies have changed. People are doing work that requires creativity, judgement, discernment and complexity – conceptual thinking, and the research is clear that the if/then motivators are not effective for this kind of work. We need a massive update.
SS: Are you saying that if/then rewards inhibit creativity and innovation?
DP: The evidence is clear that they do not promote creativity and under certain conditions, can inhibit it. It’s a very robust finding.
It’s not the case that money doesn’t matter, but if you offer your team $10,000 to the one who comes up with the big idea, the science says pretty clearly that’s not the effective way to get the best out of your people.
SS: Many say that the global financial crisis was largely caused by situations where people were solely motivated on reward. Would you agree?
DP: If you offer people very, very large rewards for short-term results they are ultimately not responsible for, then you are going to have some shenanigans such as cutting corners and even cheating. But I think with the GFC it’s more complex than that. In the US we had problems with how we regulated that behaviour. We had certain incentives in the system that made that behaviour more likely.
SS: But you can certainly see this type of behaviour arising on a micro level – take for example where sales people won’t help their colleagues because they think they will miss out on an individual commission.
DP: Some people are rethinking how we compensate people, especially in a sales environment, and determining whether individual commissions are the best way to do that.
One thought is that individual commissions can be inimical to collaboration. Some companies have got rid of sales commissions and sales have risen. There is some research out of Stanford University that shows sales targets can inhibit profits.
SS: How could HR move away from bonuses and commissions without necessarily incurring costs through increased salaries?
DP: It’s important to start small. One HR person saying, “This isn’t going to be this way” isn’t going to change things. I do think people are open to the concept of recalibrating compensation. It’s not about eliminating all variable compensation but perhaps making it a smaller percentage of total compensation. Variable compensation could be contingent on things other than individual sales, perhaps on company profits, or group performance or on customer satisfaction. If you change the metrics to be more in line with what the organisation wants to encourage then you might have a chance because people are more likely to be open to that.
SS: What are the key elements in an organisation that foster intrinsic motivation?
DP: Start by paying people enough and take the issue off the table. But the other three forces that lead to enduring, long-term motivation are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is about having a sense of self direction and some control over your job. Mastery is about getting better at things that matter and starting to make progress in our work. Purpose is to know why we do what we do – making a contribution to something larger than we are.
When it comes to autonomy, my favourite idea in my book Drive is from Australian software company Atlassian. They came up with the ‘FedEx day’, where programmers can spend a day each quarter working on a problem of their choosing, even if it’s not part of their regular job. Now other companies have done this, 3M’s technical staff are allowed to spend 15 per cent of their time on their own projects – this gave birth to the Post-its – and Google staff can spend 20 per cent of their time on side projects – which spawned gmail – but this is often too radical for a lot of companies. I recommend starting small with a FedEx day. Certainly it’s an idea that’s spreading round the world now.
On mastery, it’s urgent to begin rethinking performance reviews. Don’t eliminate them altogether but think about encouraging people to do their own performance reviews or even create an environment that allows peer-to-peer reviews.
If you present these ideas to C-suite leaders they might slowly think about how they might refashion work. HR people need to pile up small wins and not try to change everything all at once.
SS: You say a sense of purpose is important to people. Why is it so hard for organisations to create meaningful and purposeful workplaces?
DP: I think a lot of organisations don’t know why they are in business. For work to have purpose the organisations where we work have to have purpose. On some levels I think the GFC might have triggered a gentle rethinking on the point of having a business. Some people are now starting to feel that simply making a profit might be insufficient. Talent is flowing to the places that are offering purpose and away from places that are not, and these places, over the long term, will struggle to recruit and retain staff.
Some of the higher performing organisations out there combine purpose and profit and what seems to be a hybrid model seems to become more and more the norm.
Often, the word ‘purpose’ is a little daunting for people; they think it’s about saving the world. But it’s really about knowing why you are at work in the first place. We all want to feel that we are making a contribution. HRm
About Daniel Pink
Daniel Pink is the author of four books about the changing world of work, including the New York Times bestsellers, A Whole New Mind, and Drive. His books have been translated into 33 languages.
Pink’s articles on business and technology appear in many publications, including the New York Times, Harvard Business Review and Wired, where he is a contributing editor. He also writes a monthly business column for the UK’s Sunday Telegraph. He has provided analysis of business trends on CNN, CNBC, ABC, NPR, and other networks in the US and abroad. A free agent, Pink held his last real job in the White House, where he served from 1995 to 1997 as chief speechwriter to vice president Al Gore. He worked as an aide to US labor secretary Robert Reich and in other positions in politics and government.
Serge Sardo spoke to Dan Pink for the May edition of HRmonthly, where this article was first published.