Is it possible to motivate someone?

When I ran a business, the realization that it was my job to motivate staff hit me like a ton of bricks.  I had just assumed that everyone was motivated by the same things and at first, took a fairly formulaic approach to motivation.  When this didn’t work, a mentor suggested that you can’t actually motivate another human but you can find out what motivates them and use that to your advantage.  So, how do you find out what motivates someone?  You can ask them outright but you won’t always get an entirely truthful answer.  For example, some younger workers claim to be motivated only by meaningful opportunities but my negotiations with them usually revolved around higher salaries and fancier titles.

So, in my lifelong quest to understand how to bring out the best in people (myself included), I was excited to read DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, a New York Times bestseller from author Daniel Pink.  According to Pink, the old carrot and stick approach to motivating employees with external rewards like money is a relic of the 20th century that needs to be scrapped.  He asserts that the secret to high performance and satisfaction is the “deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things and to do better by ourselves and our world” and to implement this, we need to let people experience autonomy, mastery and purpose at work.  Pink encourages modern workplaces to abandon motivation 2.0 (assume that if you give employees total autonomy they will shirk their duties) and embrace motivation 3.0 (assume that everyone is ready to work hard and do a good job in the right setting).
Pink asserts that people are happiest and most productive when they’re in “flow”, that magical time when we lose ourselves in our work, becoming deeply engaged in achieving our goals, challenging ourselves and learning new things.  I completely understand this concept and I have experienced it often but if I’m perfectly honest, I’m more inclined to experience “flow” when I’m reading a book on a beach or tending to my garden, in other words, things that are not attached to how I pay the bills.  Pink believes this Zen-like state is also achievable in an office setting and provides many ideas and examples of how to make it happen, including:
Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) – Focus on results and nothing else, let people work whenever and wherever they want and don’t waste time judging how people get the job done.  I love this idea and I can see it working with highly-disciplined individuals in certain environments. However, although Pink touches on autonomy versus accountability, he doesn’t really offer any solutions for how to deal with employees who are allowed to work from home at midnight and still don’t meet their deadlines.
Remove financial incentives and just pay everyone a healthy flat salary – Sounds good, but what’s healthy? Is it the going rate in the industry or a few thousand more?  Is it what you think the employee deserves or what they believe they’ve earned? Pink argues that commissions, bonuses and even billable hours don’t work and just force people to get creative when filling out forms and I can’t say I disagree.  But human nature suggests that that there will always be people who think they’re working harder or contributing more than their peers and who will expect external rewards, whether it’s in the form of more money, extra vacation time or public recognition.
Let employees run free for a few hours – Informed by the reality that even the most creative person can get crushed under the weight of a deadline, Pink shares stories of companies which carve out time each month for employees to work on something completely unrelated to the business and not connected to compensation at all.  In this free time, liberated from client demands or management constraints, employees can really get their minds working and come up with their best work.  According to Pink, this is how Google News was conceived and scientists at one organization even won a Nobel Prize for Physics for something they developed in their non-work time. I can get behind this.  Many marketing types would say that the work they do for fun is much more creative than what they’re “allowed” to do for clients. But when every single day is packed with new deadlines and fresh crises, how would a consulting firm find the time?
The book is well researched and Pink backs up his claims with reams of scientific data, study results and real-life examples although most of the workplaces he mentions are large tech companies and the scenarios don’t always translate to an advertising agency or a retail outlet. I enjoyed the book, would recommend it, and I agree with Pink that the old models of motivation and reward are not working and are no longer applicable.  I would even say that this approach, or a form of it, is worth a try.
But I’m still skeptical about his belief that inside every seemingly lazy, disaffected worker is a hard-working Einstein just waiting to burst out if only the workplace culture is revolutionized.  It doesn’t take into account the many personality traits and innate differences that shape humanity.  In my experience as an employer, wife, friend and mother, I know that some people genuinely want to do a good job at everything they touch and will respond to any kind of motivation.  Others can only excel if they’re passionate about the subject matter.  Still others are purely transactional, will work for money, do no more than what’s required and don’t care what you think of them. Some thrive in a structured environment where they’re monitored closely and there’s little room for distraction and others can be trusted to work at home and not spend the day watching Tom and Jerry reruns.
What do you think?  Are you ready to embrace motivation 3.0?

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