Leave it to Dan Pink to inform us that everything we need to know about human behaviour can be gleaned from a monkey trying to open a simple latch lock. Uplifting. But also leave it to Dan Pink to have us re-examine an assumption that’s fundamentally wrong – like people can be motivated by rewards and punishments. Maybe we do deserve to be ruled by apes after all.
Apes and Harlow
A long time ago (1949) there was this dude named Harry F Harlow, and he thought it would be interesting to see what would happen if he placed a lock in the closed position in a cage with a monkey. Life of the party, this guy was. What happened almost immediately shocked him – they started to play with and figure out the puzzle. Over and over again, they would solve the puzzle, getting very good at it over a span of a couple of weeks.
What’s surprising about this is that they were given no external rewards or punishments to elicit this behaviour, which ran contrary to the prevailing wisdom the time. After all, there were only two drives that could explain behaviour (primate or otherwise) – a biological drive, where we’ll do anything to stay alive and satisfy our carnal urges. We’ll call this Motivation 1.0.
The second drive was the external stimulus – rewards and punishments – delivered for behaving in certain ways. That was it. And neither of these two drives could account for what those crazy apes were doing. So, Harlow came to the conclusion that there was a third drive – that the task itself provided an intrinsic reward.
Cool, but we aren’t done there. When they introduced food into the experiment – an external reward for finishing the puzzle, it actually decreased their performance. So, he did what every scientist who is on the verge of shattering everything we knew about behaviour, and completely dropped it.
A lot of other scientists have picked up Harlow’s ball and ran with it (yes, even doing experiments that confirm the exact same thing in human beings) over the past 60 years, but one thing remains consistent until this day: there is a huge gap between what science knows and what business knows.
In fact, Dan highlights the 7 deadly flaws about carrots and sticks that science knows but business doesn’t. They can: extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, crowd out good behaviour, encourage cheating, become addictive and foster short-term thinking. You won’t see those lofty aims on a mission or values statement in a boardroom anywhere in the world, so why o’ why do we act in ways that almost guarantee those outcomes?
But we shouldn’t feel too bad. I mean, this was the way we were brought up. In fact, our entire economy up until the past 10 or so years was built for a Motivation 2.0 environment. Fredrick Winslow Taylor taught us that we could manage a business scientifically, with human beings considered as inputs. And of course, we had wave after wave of economists telling us that human beings acted in rational ways and would always act to line their pockets with gold. This type of motivation worked well during the industrial revolution when the world was built on the backs of factories filled with people doing repeatable tasks. But we don’t have a world that supports that type of motivation anymore.
Type I v Type X
Everybody has their own version of the old saying “There are two kinds of people in the world”:
Clint Eastwood in one of his great roles told us that there are those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.
Seth Green would tell us that there are Michael Jackson fans and losers.
Dan Pink would tell us that there are Type I and Type X.
Those in the Type X camp are those who chase external rewards. The ironic thing is that a large portion of the human race has been trained to chase these rewards in spite of the fact that they make us miserable and decrease our productivity.
In fact, as Dan points out, Type I people – the people who chase intrinsic rewards and desires, almost always outperform Type X in the long-run, and generally have greater physical and mental well-being.
Lastly, you were not born one way or the other, you were trained to become that way. And everything that has been trained can be untrained. So whether or not the people you work with are Type I or Type X, you’ve got every reason to motivate them using Type I motivation. And you do it by giving people what they crave – autonomy, mastery and purpose.
The first thing you can do is give people autonomy. And as Dan points out, flexibility is not autonomy. So, flexible work hours won’t cut it. A little bit of leeway in how an employee won’t cut it. Complete and utter autonomy is the only thing that works.
Now, you might be thinking…What? You want me to give people autonomy? They can’t even do what they are told! How do you expect us to produce results with this touchy feely stuff?
Well, here’s one good reason to try. Researchers at Cornell University studied 320 small businesses – half which granted autonomy and half that relied on top-down direction. The businesses that offered the autonomy? They grew at 4 times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had 1/3 the turnover rate.
Still listening? Good.
Here are the 4 main ways you can grant autonomy.
1. You can give autonomy over what people do – their task.
Most people have heard of Google’s 20% rule where they allow employees to spend 20% of their time working on a project outside of their job description. Some of the products invented in that 20% time include Gmail, Google News, Google Talk and Google Translate. However, this idea wasn’t invented by Google – it first appeared at 3M way back in 1948, when William McKnight sponsored what he called “experimental doodling”. You may have heard of one of the products invented during this experimental doodling: The Post-It Note.
2. You can give people autonomy over when they work.
There’s a good reason why most lawyers seem to walk around like they’ve had the life surgically removed from them after a few years on the job – they have no control over when they do their work, and thus no autonomy. Which is why I was a lawyer for exactly 1 week. The antithesis to the 9-5 work day is the results-only work environment, or ROWE. It started at the global HQ of Best Buy, when CEO Brad Anderson quietly agreed to allow people to come and go as they pleased, as long as they got the work done. Another company that has implemented ROWE is Meddius, whose CEO recently told me in a Twitter conversation that ROWE “was the best decision I’ve ever made as a business owner”.
3. You can give people autonomy over how they do their work.
Most of you will be working in environments where what gets done is tightly controlled. We have been brought up in a world where binders full of mandated work instructions loom large. Most call centres that deliver customer service operate this way, as I’m sure you’ve experienced. But what if you didn’t do it that way? What if, like Tony Hseih from Zappos, you gave your customer service reps the autonomy to handle calls however they wanted, as long as they had the customer in mind while doing it?
4. You can give people autonomy over who they work with.
This one ties in closely with #1. One of the things people crave is the ability to choose who they hang out with. The same is true for work. Give people the ability to choose who they do their 20% time work with, and you’ll have a satisfied employee.
I love to get better at things. In particular, I love the journey of mastering things – learning things along the way. That’s part of the journey here with the RIFM series. From the fact that you are listening to this I’m guessing you love the journey as well. However, it’s not something we often stop to ponder – how do we master things? There is one condition and three laws to mastery.
The precondition is that we need to be in state of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. It’s the state of mind where everything is just clicking. Sports people would call it “in the zone”. It’s where the relationship between what you had to do and what you could to as a perfect match.
Here’s how Dan describes it:
“In flow, people people lived so deeply in the moment and felt so utterly in control that their sense of time, place, and even self melted away. They were autonomous, of course. But more than that, they were engaged.” In a landmark study that Mihaly performed, he found the most satisfying experiences in people’s lives where when they were in flow. So there’s the precondition.
The first law of mastery is that it is a mindset. Here’s another “there are two types of people in the world for you”: there are people who believe that intelligence or ability come in a finite supplies, and those that believe that we can improve on those things over time, which we’ll call “incrementalists”. One of the main differences between these two theories is in the view of hard work. The incrementalists believe that hard work is good, because working hard means getting better. And if we tie that all back to Gladwell’s 10,000 hour theory, it’s clear why mastery is a mindset. Nobody in their right mind is going to put 10,000 hours of hard work into something that will leave them in the exact same spot as when they started. So, choose your mindset.
The second law of mastery is that it is a pain. As Dan says, “as wonderful as flow is, the path to mastery – becoming ever better at something you care about – is not lined with daisies and spanned by a rainbow. (Wouldn’t that be awesome though?) This is why flow is a precondition to mastery. There’s no way you’ll suck it up and get to mastery if you don’t enjoy the journey. Because sometimes those daisies and rainbows are weeds and thunderstorms.
The third and last law of mastery is that it’s an asymptote – we never actually get there. Even Tiger Woods, the best golfer of all-time, would tell you that even he can get better, and he continually works towards that. This should be depressing, but as it turns out it’s not. It’s empowering. It gives us purpose. Which leads us into the last thing we need in order to be fulfilled – purpose.
If you think of autonomy and mastery as the first two legs of the Type I tripod, purpose becomes that last leg we need in order to balance. As Dan says: “Autonomous people working towards mastery perform at very high levels.
But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more.” Left with goals without a purpose beyond financial motives – the largest carrot known to mankind, people do not perform as well in the long-term, as we’ve already discussed. Here’s some proof.
There was a study done with a group of college students, some of which had “profit goals” and the others which had “purpose goals”. They followed up with these students a couple of years after they set the goal. What they found surprised them, but shouldn’t surprise us by now.
The people who had profit goals AND had met them were no more satisfied or happy with their lot in life than after they had left college. In fact, they showed increases in anxiety, depression, and other negative indicators. The purpose group had much higher levels of satisfaction than when they left college, and very low levels of anxiety and depression. Chew on that one for a while.
So we’ve proven that science knows much more about the human condition than business does. If you want to catch up, all you need to do is allow yourself and the people that work for you find autonomy, mastery and purpose in their life. You’ll not only have a much happier life, you’ll be more successful and happy while you are at it.
You may also like to read:
- The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile
- Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Hooked by Nir Eyal
- Grow Regardless by Joe Mechlinkski
- Everybody Matters by Bob Chapman
- The One Thing by Gary Keller & Jay Papasan
- The Winner’s Brain by Mark Fenske
- To Sell Is Human by Dan Pink
- Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman
- The Culture Game by Daniel Mezick