In these crazy pandemic times with ‘working from home’ being the norm for lots of people, it can be hard to break that monotony of our everyday routine and remember why we are getting out of bed in the first place!
I’ve been reading about motivation this week in Daniel H. Pink’s book “Drive”.
Interestingly, motivation and how we are motivated has changed dramatically over the last 50 odd years. This change is a result of a massive shift in the nature of the work we are now doing. To help explain we need to boil down all the jobs into two categories; Algorithmic or Heuristic.
‘Algorithmic’ jobs or tasks follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. Think of someone working at the checkout of a supermarket for example. They repeat the same routine with every customer that comes through their check out.
‘Heuristic’ jobs or tasks are creative, artistic, empathic and most importantly non-routine. Being a designer is heuristic. I have to design a different solution for each of my clients - no two projects are the same.
Last century the majority of jobs were algorithmic in nature. The majority of people were employed to do the same thing day in and day out - whether that be in a production line in a factory or a white collar job in an office.
In the 21st century lots of the algorithmic jobs have been outsourced or automated. In fact a consulting firm in the US estimated that 30% of job growth now comes from algorithmic work, while 70 percent is heuristic.
This isn’t surprising if you think about how much society has changed since the last century. I can think of 100s (if not 1000’s) of professions that didn't exist 50 years ago - Social media manager, Digital marketing specialist, blogger, App designer, Internet marketer…
The point is that the nature of people's work has changed. People are more interested and engaged in what they do. The nature of the work has changed and what motivates people in these positions has changed as well.
The old carrot‘n’stick method of reward has been what companies have used since the beginning of companies. These are called if-then rewards.
If you do this task then I’ll give you this reward.
For algorithmic tasks this has been a perfectly fine way to encourage higher production because it relies on the fundamental idea that if you reward an activity you’ll get more of it and by punishing an activity, you’ll get less of it. If you consider someone doing the same job day in day out then this is a pretty good motivator: work hard = more money.
Surprisingly if-then rewards have the opposite result when used in heuristic roles.
There is a popular experiment called the “candle problem” used to test problem solving prowess that requires a candle, some tacks and a book of matches. The task is to attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn’t drip on the table.
The key to this experiment is to overcome “functional fixedness”. It requires creative thinking to look past the original function of the box (as a container) and realise it can function as a platform for the candle. The solution isn’t algorithmic (following a set path) but heuristic (breaking from the path to discover a novel strategy).
You’d think that if they offered a reward for completing the task in the quickest time that would produce the best results. However the group that was offered the reward took 3.5 minutes longer than the group that was completing the task for no reward at all.
Why? Because offering a reward before a task changes the motivation of the task doer. Humans are actually pretty content working hard to solve a problem just because they want to. Providing an extrinsic reward narrows people focus, fosters short term thinking and ultimately stifles creativity.
What if-then rewards don’t take into account is that people in heuristic roles are more likely to actually enjoy their work. Heuristic work is often creative, interesting and self directed. Obviously people need to earn a living but once you pass the ‘baseline rewards’ if-then awards start to do more damage than good.
The question then becomes how does a company reward their employees if they can’t use if-then style rewards?
One solution is to use ‘now that’ rewards.
Now that you have completed the task, I’d like to celebrate by taking you out to lunch.
Unexpected rewards at the end of the task are less likely to be considered the reason for doing the task and less likely to affect the intrinsic motivation.
Yes, more money is great in the short term but what really motivates people is autonomy, mastery and purpose (this is another blog post of its own!).
These three things are what have me reading business strategy books in my spare time, and then writing about them. The overall purpose is to be more useful to my clients and while none of this is paid work I’m extremely motivated to keep at it because it's making me better at my job and more valuable to the people I work with.
Understanding what motivates us and knowing how to facilitate and encourage a working environment that supports autonomy, mastery and purpose will only lead to happier, more productive and ultimately more motivated employees.
Coincidently I caught up with a friend this week who is about to start a new job. When she opened up her new work computer there was a recurring calendar event of 1 hour every week dedicated to ‘reading for professional development’ - a whole hour a week to read! This thoughtful and relatively inexpensive gesture is the perfect example of a company ‘rewarding’ their employee in a heuristic environment.
As a personal experiment I tested the two types of rewards out on the kids this week.
My default is almost exclusively if-then rewards:
If you clean up the Duplo in the lounge, then you can watch TV.
Success was 100% but I had to say it 5 times, getting louder and angrier each time.
I had my line ready for the now that reward:
Now that you have put the Duplo away, I’d like to reward you with an hour of television!
I never got to test my ‘Now that’ reward because it turns out that a 3 and 4 year old will do absolutely nothing unless you bribe them. Nothing at all.