Safety 2011: What Motivates Employees?

Several times during the opening session of Safety 2011 in Chicago, author Daniel Pink noted that according to the physics of behavior, if we reward behavior, we typically get back more of that behavior. Conversely, we punish the behaviors we don’t want, and therefore should get less of that behavior.

“It turns out…that’s less true than we think,” said Pink. “It’s bizarre that we should have to talk about what motivates us.”

According to him, our culture has “an endless reliance on behavior carrots and sticks as motivators.” He calls one type of motivation “if then,” as in “If you do this, then I’ll do that.” This often works well as a way to motivate employees doing simple tasks, he said, but does not suffice for employees doing more complicated tasks or in jobs that require creative thinking.

“Money is a motivator,” said Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. “In Washington, we call that a ‘true fact.’” But money is not enough, he adds. “There is a norm of fairness. Two people doing the same work should receive the same pay. If one finds out he’s making less, that’s a huge de-motivator. Pay people enough to take money off the table.”

What Pink calls “enduring motivators” are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Workers do not engage by being managed, he added. They engage by having autonomy over their time, their tasks, their team composition and their technique. He suggested a simple test using a scale of 1-10, with one being the lowest and 10 being the highest, to determine how autonomous you are at work. Do you have autonomy over when you start and end work and how you scheduled your day? Do you have autonomy over your job tasks and when you do them? Are you allowed to pick the members of your team or the people with whom you can collaborate on a project? Can you choose your “technique,” the way in which you accomplish your job tasks and goals?

An average score is 27 or 28, said Pink, with anything falling below that considered job dissatisfaction. “And don’t say, ‘I got a 30! Woo hoo!’ if the scores are 9, 9, 9, 3. That means there’s a problem” even if the total score was above average, said Pink, who reminded managers to try to give employees – especially those in creative or highly technical jobs – as much autonomy as possible as a way to maintain high levels of motivation.

He gave as an example Google, which has what it calls Fedex Days. On Thursday afternoons, employees are free to work on new ideas, even ones outside of their job descriptions. On Friday, those ideas are tossed around by all the employees. (Fedex Day refers to the FedEx promise of next-day delivery.) Out of those Fedex Days have come the ideas for Google News and Gmail, two of the company’s most popular offerings.

Employees who have mastery of a job also tend to have higher levels of engagement and motivation, said Pink. He cited a recent Harvard study that concluded one of the greatest work motivators was to make progress in one’s work. According to Pink, that beloved standby, the annual review, is a huge motivation killer. Creative, highly motivated employees need more than a once-a-year, uncomfortable accounting of their work. They need monthly updates, even weekly or daily updates, he said. One company offers employees the opportunity to give peer to peer “Now That” awards. Any employee can give another employee a $50, immediate bonus, said Pink. Employees do not abuse the program, he noted, and said the bonus not only motivates the receiver, but also the giver. “Employees are looking for positive actions. That’s a motivator,” said Pink.

Purpose, said Pink, can be a powerful motivator. A study from the University of Michigan studied the employees of a call center at the university. The call center’s purpose was to call University of Michigan graduates and try to get them to donate back to the university. One study group did nothing different, one read letters from people who previously had worked in the call center who talks about the work and the third group read letters from University of Michigan graduates who talked about the value of their education and what they currently were doing with their degrees. There was no difference between the sense of purpose of the first two study groups, while the third group had a strong sense of purpose and belief in the value of what they were doing.

When taken together, giving employees as much autonomy as possible, providing them with the tools and training to have mastery of their job and providing them with a sense of purpose – not just the “how” of the job but the “why” of the job – can lead to a more highly motivated and skilled workforce.

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