The surprising truth about what motivates us

Posted on January 16, 2011


Autonomy, Matery, and Purpose

Have you ever wondered what makes people creative and innovative? Have you ever wanted to spark innovation in a work place, but unsure how too? Do you wonder why some people, when they get off after a long day of work, continue on to another work without being paid? If so, this video will challenge your thoughts and perhaps give you some answers or inspirations.

It is almost like defying gravity from the perspective of traditional economic thinking, that people work for free, that they spend their little free time working volunteer on humanitarian projects, or that they gladly share their knowledge with strangers. People all over the world are portraying this non-rational economic behavior. What is up with that? And if you try to spur creativity and create this engagement and knowledge sharing in a work place through the means of providing economic incentives – like for example innovation bonuses – studies reveal, that you will get the opposite! So what explains this behavior and what then, motivates us to act in such fashions?

The surprising truth about what motivates us

This highly refreshing and thought-provoking video on ‘the surprising truth about what motivates us’ made by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), will show you that we are not as endlessly manipulable and predictable as one could think, or as traditional economic theory has reduced us too.

According to RSA, science shows clearly that, sure enough, for tasks only requiring simple, straight forward mechanical skills, the traditional reward system of providing money incentives work wonders. In this scenario; the higher bonuses, the better results. However, once a task becomes more complicated and requires rudimentary cognitive skills and more conceptual, creative thinking, something changes. Strangely, higher incentives – larger rewards – yield worse results. The carrot-and-stick formula fails.

‘The big take away here is that if we start treating people like people and not assuming they are simply horses; if we get past this kind of ideology of carrots and sticks and look at the science, we can actually build organizations and work lives that make us better off. But it also has the promise of making the world just a little bit better’ RSA postulates.

What then motivates us?

What makes busy, hard-working people work even more in their scarce free time for free? What makes thousands of people daily spend hours on contributing to sites like Wikipedia sharing all that they know?

RSA explains this paradox of money, motivation, and drive this way:

If you don’t pay people enough, the wont be motivated. But as mentioned above, using high rewards as incentives will equally not motivate them. So the best way of using money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money of the table. Basically, you must pay people just enough so they don’t have to spend one thought worrying about money, such that they feel free to only think about their job. Once you do that, there are three factors science shows lead to a better performance and personal satisfaction: Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose

According to RSA, autonomy is our desire to be self-directed; wishing to direct our own lives. Hence, if you want an engaged and committed work force, self-direction is better than over-kill management and bureaucracy. Ways to do this is for example giving people freedom and time ‘off’ now and then to work on what ever they want related to the company, where after they must present their ideas in inspiring gatherings. Companies like Google, Ideo, and Atlassian is known to incorporate this kind of thinking intro their organizational structures. One day of autonomy can produce things (e.g. fixes for exiting products, new products, innovative thoughts) that otherwise never would have emerged.

Mastery on the other hand, is our urge to get better at stuff. We simply love to get better at things. People who are highly skilled, and who already have jobs, why are they working for free, and giving knowledge and results away for free? What makes them act in this non economical-rational way? They are doing highly sophisticated and technically challenging work for long hours during the week, and in their free time, they do more of the same kind of work now just for free! That is a strange economic behavior, some would say.

Why are they doing it?

It is overwhelmingly clear, RSA states. The reason is this: challenge and mastery along with making a contribution – satisfy us! Said differently, room for self directory merged with the sense of mastery, getting better at stuff, and using this to make a contribution to the world – that combination motivates us and drives us forward, making our behavior defy traditional economical rationality! The purpose motive is central to this formula. Not surprisingly, more and more organizations have some sort of transcendent purpose, and studies have shown, that it makes it a better work environment, one more prone to innovation and more attractive to talent.

Working in an inspiring environment, which allows some degree of autonomy and mastery with a mission of contributing positively to the planet in some way or another, seems to be what gets many people to rush out of bed in the morning, exited about going to work. And it is also what makes people volunteer or engage in social project, when they are off their regular work. The secret ingredients to our motivation, creativity, and drive appear to be autonomy, mastery, and purpose – and it shows, that we are more so purpose maximizing creatures, over profit maximizing ones.

Given these findings pointed out by multiple scientific studies, imagine the potential! When organizations incorporate this understanding of a fine blend of autonomy, mastery, and purpose – we will not only see people satisfied at their jobs, full of energy and care, but also an increase in ideas, organizations, and movements working for the better of the planet. Setting a frame which can inspire and motivate the individual to take action, seems to be a very powerful potential, and a force, which most likely will be highly contagious.

It seems that the wiki-tendencies across the globe invalidate the carrot-and-stick ideology of traditional management thinking.