Hint: it’s not what you’d think
We’ve all been told for years now that recognition and financial incentives, both of which are extrinsic, are the two biggest motivators for employee performance. For folks that are performing non-mechanical tasks requiring some degree of conceptual thinking, recent research actually tears this theory apart, Edward Scissorhands-style. For these employees, frequently referred to as “knowledge workers,” science has proven that higher financial incentives actually lead to poorer performance .
Wait a minute here. Am I trying to tell you that money has no relationship whatsoever to employee performance? Definitely not; that’s pure crazy because we all know that money matters. However, money has a very specific relationship to employee performance in a knowledge worker role. You need to pay your employees enough to take the issue of money off the table so your employees can focus on the top incentives that actually motivate them the most.
What about motivating non-knowledge workers that are in roles requiring them to perform mechanical, repetitive tasks? (For example, someone whose job is to stuff envelopes for mass mailings.) For these folks, the traditional wisdom of higher incentives driving better performance is dead on. If you want to improve results with these types of employees, offer them financial rewards for achieving a set goal.
Getting back to knowledge workers, the research found that the motivators of employee performance are all intrinsic in nature. Let’s take a look at what those intrinsic motivators are. You might be surprised; I certainly was. According to a recent multi-year study conducted by Harvardites Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer , progress is the top motivator of employee performance.
Think about your own work life experience and how you feel at different ends of the progress spectrum to see if this rings true. Look back on a day when you felt your To Do List piling up and getting out of control. How did you feel? In contrast, take a day when you were able to cross off a large number of To Do List items and how that accomplishment left you feeling.
I’m a little old school when it comes to my To Do List and I actually use a Piccadilly Essential Notebook to track my tasks and due dates. Yes, I actually use paper and pen in spite of the fact that there is surely “an app for that.” I get immense satisfaction from checking off To Do items from my notebook. So much so, in fact, that I actually create a little checkbox next to each action item and then check it off when I’m finished with the task. Am I crazy? Turns out no. At least, not for that reason. As Hugo Liu, a researcher at MIT Media Lab, writes in his article on the subject, neuroscience tells us that your brain releases massive quantities of endorphins when you complete a task. What does this mean? Progress is a very powerful motivator because it results in a feel-good high of endorphins coursing through your neural pathways.
Progress isn’t the only intrinsically motivational game in town, though. Business book author and influential business thinker Daniel Pink summarized a decade’s worth of research findings in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. He identified these three intrinsic factors that lead to better employee performance for knowledge workers as well as personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery and purpose . He also put together a fantastic video on the subject with very engaging and artistically stimulating animation.
What do autonomy, mastery and purpose look like in the workplace? Google encourages workplace autonomy among its engineers by encouraging them to devote 20% of their time to working on something they actually want to work on that is company-related. Many of those “want to work on” projects are responsible for making Google better for employees and customers alike as well as driving the company’s revenue and market share. This is clearly one of the reasons behind Google’s #1 ranking on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list.
Rap artist Macklemore’s hit song (book)” target=”_new”>Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success that mastery of a specific task takes 10,000 hours of practicing that task . If you worked 40 hours a week at a specific task, it would take you nearly 5 years to reach mastery. Why would anyone want to do that? The answer to that lies in every single musician, artist, and athlete out there. They work hard because they are fulfilled by what they do. Bring it back to the workplace and ask yourself the last time you worked hard at a task because you wanted to master it. How did you feel when you finally achieved mastery? Chances are good that you felt like a rock star. Did you need your boss standing around dangling dollar bills in front of you to feel motivated? Heck, no! You were engaged and motivated purely by the sense of accomplishment derived from getting to “ninja” status at your chosen task.
Alright, we understand autonomy and mastery, but what about purpose ? Purpose in this context relates specifically to a connection with others. Science says that we yearn to do what we want to do in the service of a purpose higher than ourselves. Why do people work at nonprofit organizations? More often than not, they chose to work at a nonprofit because they feel they are contributing to an organization that is a vehicle for positive change for a cause they believe in. That doesn’t mean a for-profit corporation can’t motivate employees through purpose. Just look at the way Zappos strives to improve the lives of its customers by providing stellar “WOW” service with every interaction.
The fact that the primary motivators for knowledge workers are all intrinsic is fantastic news for employers. It means that as long as you are paying your employees enough, your employees will actually motivate themselves to perform well in the workplace. All you have to do is make sure your company isn’t throwing up roadblocks that prevent this self-motivational process. For example, laying down a bunch of constricting rules around how to perform a task will inhibit an employee’s ability to have autonomy. If you have to have rules, do your best to set those rules around the outcome and let your employees have autonomy in the path they choose to achieve that desired outcome.
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