A few years back, I landed what most would consider an amazing job opportunity: writing for a well-known company. I was being paid more money than I was probably worth at the time, and for that matter, more than most other 20-somethings in my industry. It came with a senior job title, a benefits package that made my mother proud, and my own office — not just a cubicle, but an actual four-walls-and-a-window kind of office — which afforded me a quiet space to work. On paper, it was a dream job. But you already know where this is going — I was miserable.
Now, before you dismiss me as another thankless millennial, let me at least try to offer some insight. The job I left previously was in a similar industry one known to be creative. I would spend my days coming up with new ideas and concepts for clients, and writing about innovative products that helped the greater good. Imagination was valued, inventiveness was encouraged, and originality was rewarded. It was all very “Mad Men,” but without the cigarettes and pinstripe suits.
The new job, well, was nothing like that. I had little control over what I could write, or not write — what I could say, and what I could not say. My work no longer had any sense of autonomy, and mastery was no longer judged by creativity. I felt like a puppet with a word processor day in, day out. It was worsened by the introverted office culture. What was once an incentive to have my own office soon became something I loathed when I realized how much everyone was isolated by their offices. My motivation to go to work every day dwindled, and the quality of my work soon followed. Suffice to say, I didn’t last long at that job — just under a year — and it was the first time I saw for myself that money really doesn’t buy happiness.
Baby boomers reading this are shaking their head — I know, to older generations, my discontent makes little sense; great salary, great benefits, great job security. What’s the problem?! But you see, there’s been a revolutionary shift from the traditional means of career satisfaction. Today’s workers don’t just want to spend their time earning a paycheck. They want their 40-hour workweeks to have purpose. The careers most sought out today are more complex and more self-directed than in the past. They generally require the ability to foster new ideas and use creative problem solving. And well, all of that throws a wrench into how businesses have been incentivizing their employees to keep them happy.
For as long as anyone reading this can remember, companies and organizations have operated with the assumption that the key to motivate employees, improve performance, and increase productivity is to reward the good, punish the bad. And if you want people to perform even better, you reward them more. Right? Bonuses, commissions, promotions. It’s how business works.
Except that it doesn’t. There is a mismatch between what motivates employees and what businesses do to motivate their employees.
According to Dan Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” the way most people encourage high performance and satisfaction is built entirely around extrinsic motivators — large bonuses and high-paying salaries.
“It’s a case of dangling carrots and sticks” as Pink calls it. Not only does it not work, but it can actually do more harm than good, as this extrinsic-rewards approach has been shown to dull thinking and block creativity. This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and unfortunately, also one of the most ignored.
To test this theory, famous economist Dr. Dan Ariely and his colleagues did a study involving students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They gave the students a bunch of games — games that involved creativity, motor skills, and concentration.
Depending on how well they performed, he offered them three levels of rewards: small reward, medium reward, and large reward. The better a student did, the larger the reward.
What happened? As long as the game a student was tasked with involved only mechanical skills, then offering them a larger reward lead to better performance. However, once the task called for basic cognitive skills, thinking, or creativity, a larger reward led to poorer performance.
Ariely and his team didn’t stop there. They headed to Madurai, India, to see if a cultural bias at MIT influenced their results. In Madurai, standards of living are lower, so a reward considered modest by American standards is more meaningful. They set the study up the same way various games and three levels of rewards. They found on cognitive tests that people offered the medium level of rewards performed no better than people offered the small rewards. But this time, people offered the highest rewards performed the worst of all. In eight of the nine tasks, higher incentives led to worse performance, showing that extrinsic incentives can negatively impact overall performance.
The good news is that we now know a thing or two about which rewards motivate workers the most and lead to greater job satisfaction. Researchers studying the correlation between motivation and performance have established that there are sweeter incentives worth dangling. It’s just a matter of focusing on intrinsic motivation — where you are motivated by doing something you enjoy — versus extrinsic motivation. The key to intrinsic motivation is to hone in on three deeply human needs: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Autonomy: The Need To Direct Your Own Life
You probably didn’t need science to tell you that you do better when you feel in control. In turn, a sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. An example of this can be seen with the Australian software company Atlassian. Every few months, they tell their engineers, “Go for the next 24 hours and work on anything you want, as long as it’s not part of your regular job.” At the end of the 24 hours, they presented to their teammates how they spent their time. Just a few days of intense autonomy produced a whole array of software fixes for Atlassian that might never have existed.
Another company to encourage autonomy is Zappos, the online shoe company. In 2014, they ditched the old corporate structure — no more job titles, no more managers, no more hierarchy. Instead, all 1,500 workers were organized into something called a “holacracy” — a new kind of organizational management system. It takes its name from the Greek word holos, an autonomous, self-sufficient unit dependent on a larger component.