Here’s a funny thing about humans and motivation - we are not endlessly manipulable or predictable as you might think.
In fact, the top 5 ways to motivate your employees are not at all what you might think.
The key takeout of his talk was that to motivate your employees in an effective way, you have to start with understanding the somewhat baffling science of motivation, and then lay the groundwork for them to enjoy autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Here are five top ways to motivate your employees today:
1. Relook the notion of the carrot and the stick (completely!)
There are very interesting studies that call into question the notion that if you reward something you get more of the behaviour you want and if you punish something you get less of it.
For example, a large-scale MIT study funded by the Federal Reserve Bank of the USA took a group of students and gave them a set of challenges. This included tasks like memorising strings of digits, solving word puzzles and spatial puzzles, as well as physical tasks like throwing a ball through a hoop.
To incentivise their performance the researchers gave participants three levels of rewards.
If you did pretty well, you'd get a small monetary reward, if you did medium well you'd get a medium-sized monetary reward and if you were one of the top performers you'd get a large cash prize.
This is a typical reward scheme within most organisations - rewarding top performers, ignoring low performers and placating the folks in the middle with a little something-something.
But what did the folks at MIT find out?
As long as the task only involved mechanical skill, bonuses worked as expected - the higher the pay, the better the performance. However, if the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward actually paved the way for poorer performance.
How can that possibly be?
The leaders of the study were all economists, two from MIT, one from the University of Chicago, and one from Carnegie Mellon - the top tier of the economic profession. They were very surprised at the results, they were directly contrary to what many are taught in economics, "the higher the reward, the better the performance".
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Instead, they were finding that once you get above rudimentary cognitive skill, rewards don't work that way.
They then decided to test their findings somewhere else, namely Madurai in rural India, where they believed the equivalent of the rewards they were offering MIT students would make a much larger impact. They replicated the conditions of the study, with the rewards equal to 2 weeks salary, 1 month's salary and two months' salary. Those are some really great incentives.
However, their findings showed that the people offered the medium reward did no better than the people offered the small reward, and the people offered the high reward did worst of all!
Yes, that's right - higher incentives actually led to the worst performance.
The interesting thing is that these findings have since been shown not to be anomalous at all - it's been replicated over and over again by everyone from psychologists, to sociologists and further economists. For simple straight-forward tasks the do-this-to-get-that approach works great. Carrots and sticks work very well in these cases. However, as soon as a task gets more complicated, and requires some conceptual, creative thinking, those kinds of motivators simply don't work.
Money is a motivator at work, but in a strange way.
If you don't pay people enough, they won't be motivated. There is a funny paradox here - the best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table, i.e. you need to pay people enough so they're thinking about the work instead of the money.
Once you've done so there are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction, namely: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
2. Get out of their way and allow them to do something interesting
Autonomy is our desire to be self directed - to run our own lives. Traditional, old-school management styles do not really allow for this. These styles are great if you want yes-sir compliance, but if you want engagement (which is what we want in our workforce today), self-direction is better.
For example, at Atlassian, an Australian software company, management tells their developers once a quarter that for the next 24 hours they can work on anything they want with whoever they want in whatever way they want.
The only condition is that at the end of that 24 hours, they need to share the results of the work they put in with the rest of the company in a fun, relaxed show-and-tell kind of meeting.
It turns out that that one day of undiluted autonomy has led to a baffling array of fixes for existing software bugs, and lucrative new product ideas that would otherwise never have emerged.
Do you think it’s possible to find a way to do something similar at your company?
3. Give them the space to get better at stuff
Next up is mastery. Humans like to get better at stuff. This is why you find that some people like to play musical instruments on the weekends, or do needlepoint, or teach themselves how to edit their photos in a cool way. Why? It's not making them any money - why are they doing it? Simple - because it's fun, and it's satisfying to get better at something.
This is the motion behind open-source resources like Linux and Wikipedia which is developed and given away for free by highly skilled people who are already gainfully employed and don't stand to gain any monetary reward for working on these projects. Why? Easy - it aligns challenge and mastery with making a positive contribution to society.
Offer your employees the opportunity to do something similar within their roles at your company.
4. Make sure they have a sense of purpose
Businesses around the globe have found that having a strong purpose is the best way to attract top talent and ensure that people are happy to come to work. When the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive bad things happen - lame products, poor service, ethical speedbumps, etc. Companies that are flourishing are animated by their purpose.
Start seeing your employees as purpose maximisers instead of profit maximisers, and treating them as individuals so you can build an organisation that leaves all role players better off and make the world a little better at the same time.
5. Give credit where credit is due
Finally, be ready to give recognition for hard work. It really is as simple as that.
How you choose to recognise and reward employee performance is up to you (it will differ for each business, and possibly even every employee), but be sure to make regular, timeous, public recognition a part of how you do things at your company.
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