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Michael McDonnell's blog

Why we need to re-think our views on motivation and engagement


‘If you need me to motivate you, I probably don’t want to hire you’
(Business Leader)

The scandals into the financial and banking sectors in Ireland and the UK are forcing a rethink of the effectiveness of performance pay and bonus systems, particularly where they are linked to short term goals.

In his book ‘Drive - the surprising truth about what motivates us’ Daniel H Pink makes a convincing case of why and how a far more appropriate approach to motivation and engagement needs to be devised and implemented.

Drawing on the behavioural sciences he divides work into two categories: Algorithmic and Heuristic. Algorithmic work is based on a set of established instructions leading to one conclusion. A heuristic task is the complete opposite: because there is no algorithmic people have to be creative and come up with unique and novel solutions.

The book cites data from McKinsey and Co which shows that only 30% of job growth in the US now comes from algorithmic work with the other 70% based on heuristic activity.

This phenomenal growth in creative, knowledge driven work (ie heuristic activity) has a particular resonance in Ireland given the IDA’s success in attracting higher added value FDI. Pink describes in detail how to implement a new approach to motivating a workforce that is expecting - and gaining - more and more discretion over how their work is carried out.

His case is supported by Harvard Business School research which found that while external rewards such as PRP, bonuses, etc, may be effective for algorithmic work they can have a seriously negative impact when applied to heuristic work which involves, for example, ‘the solving of novel problems or the creation of something the world didn’t know it was missing’.

Pink points out that an over reliance on extrinsic motivators can end up ‘giving us more of what we don’t want’. When you think of the fate of Blackberry and the struggles of Nokia to stay in the game his point is well made. I wonder how many of the incentive schemes in our organisations are rewarding people for just doing existing tasks better, while unnoticed the market embraces new solutions that render our ‘old but improved’ products obsolete? Goals based on extrinsic motivators narrow the focus and undermine an organisation’s capacity to see the need to change and develop new and innovative solutions.

Furthermore, as the banking scandals so inelegantly demonstrated short-term goals linked to excessive bonuses leads, all too easily, to unethical behaviour and toxic corporate cultures.

Pink describes three elements that promote high performance behaviour: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

People want autonomy over four aspects of their work: what they do, when they do it, how they do it and whom they do it with. What he calls the four T’s: task, time, technique and team. It’s an approach that’s proving successful. Research at Cornell University into 320 small businesses found that organisations which gave their staff greater autonomy grew at four times the rate of those that didn’t and had one third the turnover.

In the high performance workplace Mastery is based on three rules: the capacity to see ability not as finite but as infinitely improvable. Secondly, Mastery is not a soft option it demands effort, grit and practice. And Mastery is asymptote which means it’s impossible to fully realise making it both frustrating and alluring.

Purpose is based around the principle that human beings crave a commitment to a cause that is greater than themselves. When organisations facilitate this through a sense of common purpose it brings Autonomy and Mastery together to achieve even greater results. As Dan Pink puts it ’autonomous people working towards mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more’.

Pink’s approach to motivation is in my view an idea whose time has come. His message is particularly relevant in Ireland as we embark on the first tentative steps of recovery, while rebuilding trust, engagement and a motivated and energised workforce.

CIPD chief executive, Peter Cheese together with Dan Pink, Gary Hamel and other global thought-leaders are engaged in identifying the new challenges and new opportunities for HR at a time when corporate success ‘has never been more fleeting’.

Peter is a leading advocate of the positive role that HR can play in both eliminating the barriers to adoptability in the workplace and in building new capabilities which enable proactive change to take place. CIPD is working on an HR model that is robust and fit for purpose as we continue to champion better work and working lives.

The wider HR community is involved through a Hackathon (an online problem solving event that will harness the collective intelligence of progressive HR and management practitioners from around the world.) The Hackathon is provided by CIPD and Management Innovation Exchange (MIX).

In CIPD Ireland we believe the time is right for progressive HR professionals to join the debate and bring forward the innovative HR strategies that will help to lead the country back to sustainable growth by mobilising and motivating our rich and considerable human talent resources.

If you’re interested in exploring these ideas with us we’d love to hear from you.

DRIVE: the surprising truth about what motivates us’ by Daniel H Pink is published by Cannongate Books.

Your comments



Abi Agbaje-Williams
04 September 2013 at 11:23

Finland has been credited with having the world's best educational system. It doesn't stem from teaching children to targets but from giving them, from a very early age, the opportunity to explore and be creative, leading to self-motivation.  Sweden is similar, giving us the likes of Skype and Spotify. Singapore, which also has one of the world's top educational systems has now realised that if it is going to continue to grow its economy, creativity and autonomy are to be embraced.

This looks like a book worth reading, not only for large employers but for SMEs and small scale professionals that need to re-think business in an ever-changing climate.

How easy it is to change a culture which is Algorithmic in its motivation and employee engagement practices is another issue and remains to be seen.  Maybe the book addresses this.

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Heather Campbell
07 October 2013 at 15:11

Abi, In my experience, organisations focus on the wrong things when they seek to move to a culture that motivates and engages.  They over-complicate the process.  One of the most immediate ways in which businesses can engage and therefore motivate their employees is to build the ability of their leaders to interact well with the people they lead.  So many leaders simply cannot do effectively.  As a result, they avoid giving feedback (both positive and not so positive), the put unnecessary spin on their communications, they focus on tasks not relationships.  When leaders focus on interacting well, autonomy, mastery and purpose emerge naturally.  Poor interaction stifles all three and demotivates as a result.

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