Sunday, May 2, 2010

Money and Motivation

This PBS NewsHour piece supposedly explores the way in which modern science has changed the way we think about motivation in the workplace.

I think it's probably right in very broad strokes, here's the general thrust of the story:


DANIEL PINK: We tend to think that the way you get people to perform at a high level is, you reward what you want and punish what you don't want, carrot and stick. If you do this, then you get that.

That turns out, the science says, to be an extraordinarily effective way of motivating people for those routine tasks, simple, straightforward, where there's a right answer. They end up being a terrible form for motivating people to do creative conceptual tasks.

PAUL SOLMAN: How does the science show this?

DANIEL PINK: If you offer me a reward, $500 reward, you have my attention, absolutely. A contingent reward gets you to focus like this, narrow vision. If the answer is right in front of you, that's terrific. You race a lot faster. But if you have this kind of vision for a creative conceptual problem, you're going to blow it. You're not going to do anything good.


Okay, that makes some sense, although the primary example throughout the story is the classic problem-solving task of affixing a candle to a wall with only a book of matches and a box of tacks. The amount of the reward is contingent upon the amount of time taken, i.e., you solve it faster, you get more money. So time is a pretty big variable that goes unmentioned for the most part.

The results of the classic experiment mentioned were that people tended to solve the problem better and faster if offered less money. Okay. I don't know this literature, but did they do an untimed variant? For example, have two groups: one that's just told they will be paid a flat rate, say $20 for solving the problem, and another that is told they will get just $50 for solving the problem, but a bonus of $200 for more creative solutions. Neither group would have a time constraint. My prediction would be that the second group would solve the problem more often and more quickly than the first.

The theme of the piece is that in the modern workplace, creativity, problem solving, and more diffuse, less goal-driven thinking are all more important, and that we have to shed our traditional notions of motivating people with more money if we want them to be more creative and solve more interesting problems.

I think that's a crock. It feeds into the stereotype of the starving artist, but I don't think it meshes very well with reality.

The first place of business the story profiles is a computer sales firm. They say that just about every stat for the business went up after they eliminated sales commissions. Why? Because the lust for money was causing sales staff to lie in order to sell more stuff. When they eliminated bonuses, everybody was supposedly happier. Why? Because sales staff could now focus on "fostering long-term relationships with customers". Um, okay.

This bit smells very fishy to me. It plays like a chunk of a Michael Moore film in which we learn how awesome the Cuban healthcare system while conveniently ignoring the fact that it's situated in a police state.

I kept waiting for a salesperson to say "Yeah, there's less pressure, but damn, I do miss those fat commission checks around the holidays." None of that, of course. I kept waiting for them to mention some other motivators used in lieu of money, e.g. nice workplace conditions, but the story basically focuses on people's intrinsic desire to do good.

Anyway, then they interview a bunch of people who work on open-source projects and ask them why they do it. We get a lot of hippy, feel-good explanations about giving back to the world.

I think it would be interesting to study the science of human motivation. In general, though, I think the assertion that monetary rewards dampen creative thinking are bunk. I can see how that might be the case in a high-pressure, timed situation, but the world is filled with highly-successful creative people who were not so altruistic as to give away their creativity and problem-solving for free.

I'm not saying there aren't people who don't produce valuable things due to intrinsic motivations. Money isn't the only motivator, obviously. But this story doesn't do anything to dispel the idea that it is still an effective motivator for both routine and highly-creative tasks.

2 comments:

Jim said...

Derek,

I think the complexities around motivation stem from the fact that the brain has multiple and contradictory ways it is stimulated to model and consider taking action.

A book/blog I have found fascinating in this area is called "Predictably Irrational" (which is probably more aptly named "Predictably Non-rational", but is just a small quibble compared to the value I have found). It studies the fascinating issues around motivation. My favorite involves the distinction between social-norm and market-norm.

Anyway, I think you would find the general ideas fascinating. And I can see you diving into to dissect them and find your own perspectives on it. {smirk}


Miss you,

Jim

Emily said...

I think there are a lot of variables at play and a lot of complexity that goes into motivating factors. Just drawing from my own experience, a floor in a hospital will often offer up quite a large sum of money for people to work additional shifts...time and a half to double time. Were I solely motivated by money(and I am fairly motivated by money at this point in my life), I would jump at this chance. But because I work in such a physically and emotionally taxing environment, it essentially comes down to a cost-benefit analysis in my head. Is the amount of money going to be worth the exhaustion, the time taken away from family, etc? Usually the answer is no. But, if I weren't paid a decent wage, I also wouldn't work this job at all. Even though I do glean a lot of satisfaction from the fact that I'm "making a difference," it's not volunteer work. And one of the things that keeps me working in the hospital despite how really bad it can be is the money.