What we know about motivation came from the 1900s through the likes of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who invented what he called “scientific management”. Now this is the puzzle. Over the century (1900-2012), the world has morphed in so many ways that we can’t resist asking if what we know about motivating people isn’t ‘outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in [modern] science’.
Daniel Pink in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, provides in easy to read prose, a most audacious and thought-provoking expose of ‘what truly motivates us’ in this day and age.In an interesting twist, what he discovers is so new (not yet in wide acceptance and application) but yet so old as it bears its foundations in works that, take a guess…dates far back as the 1900s!This article is a summary of that book.
When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system – which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators – doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way.
This new approach has three essential elements:
(1) Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives;
(2) Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and
(3) Purpose– the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.
The Puzzling Puzzles of Harry Harlow and Edward Deci
Human beings have a biological drive that includes hunger, thirst, and sex. We also have another long-recognized drive: to respond to rewards and punishments in our environment. But in the middle of the twentieth century, a few scientists began discovering that humans also have a third drive – what some call “intrinsic motivation.”
For several decades, behavioural scientists have been figuring out the dynamics and explaining the power of our third drive. Alas, business hasn’t caught up to this new understanding. If we want to strengthen our companies, elevate our lives, and improve the world, we need to close the gap between what the science knows and what business does.
In the middle of the last century, two young scientists conducted experiments that should have changed the world – but did not. Harry F. Harlow was a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin who, in the 1940s, established one of the world’s first laboratories for studying primate behaviour. One day in 1949, Harlow and two colleagues gathered eight rhesus monkeys for a two-week experiment on learning. The researchers devised a simple mechanical puzzle.
Solving it required three steps: pull out the vertical pin, undo the hook, and lift the hinged cover. Pretty easy for you and me, far more challenging for a thirteen-pound lab monkey. The experimenters placed the puzzles in the monkeys’ cages to observe how they reacted – and to prepare them for tests of their problem-solving prowess at the end of the two weeks. But almost immediately something happened.
Unbidden by any outside urging and unprompted by the experimenters, the monkeys began playing with the puzzles with focus, determination, and what looked like enjoyment. And in short order, they began figuring out how the contraption worked. By the time Harlow tested the monkeys on days 13 and 14 of the experiment, the primates had become quite adept. They solved the puzzles frequently and quickly: two-thirds of the time they cracked the code in less than sixty seconds.
Now, this was a bit odd. Nobody taught the monkeys how to remove the pin, slide the hook, and open the cover. Nobody had rewarded them with food, affection, or even quiet applause when they succeeded. And that ran counter to the accepted notions of how primates – including the bigger-brained, less hairy primates known as human beings – behaved. Scientists then knew that two main drives powered behaviour.
The first was the biological drive [Motivation 1.0].
Human and other animals ate to sate their hunger, drank to quench their thirst, and copulated to satisfy their carnal urges. But that wasn’t happening here. “Solution did not lead to food, water, or sex gratification, “Harlow reported.
The second was the External drive [Motivation 2.0].
The other known drive also failed to explain the monkeys’ peculiar behaviour. If biological motivations came from within, this second drive [Motivation 2.0] came from without – the rewards and punishments the environment delivered for behaving in certain ways. This was certainly true for humans who responded exquisitely to such external forces.
If you promised to raise our pay, we’d work harder. If you held out the prospect of getting an A on the test, we’d study longer. If you threatened to dock us for showing up late or for incorrectly completing a form, we’d arrive on time and tick every box. But that didn’t account for the monkeys’ actions either.
As Harlow wrote, and you can almost hear him scratching his head, “The behaviour obtained in this investigation poses some interesting questions for motivation theory, since significant learning was attained and efficient performance maintained without resort to special or extrinsic incentives.”
What else could it be? To answer the question, Harlow offered a novel theory – what accounted to a third drive: “The performance of the task, “he said, “provided intrinsic reward.” The monkeys solved the puzzles simply because they found it gratifying to solve puzzles. They enjoyed it. The joy of the task was its own reward. If this notion was radical, what happened next only deepened the confusion and controversy. Perhaps this newly discovered drive – Harlow eventually called it “intrinsic motivation” – was real. But surely it was subordinate to the other two drives.
If the monkeys were rewarded – with raisins! – for solving the puzzles, they’d no doubt perform even better. Yet when Harlow tested that approach, the monkeys actually made more errors and solved the puzzles less frequently. “Introduction of food in the present experiment.” Harlow wrote, “served to disrupt performance, a phenomenon not reported in the literature.” Now this was really odd. It suggested that our understanding of the gravitational pulls on our behaviour was inadequate – that what we thought were fixed laws had plenty of loopholes. Harlow emphasized the “strength and persistence” of the monkeys’ drive to complete the puzzles.
At that time, however, the prevailing two drives held a tight grip on scientific thinking. So Harlow sounded the alarm. He urged scientists to “close down large sections of our theoretical junkyard” and offer fresher, more accurate accounts of human behaviour. He warned that our explanation of why we did what we did was incomplete. He said that to truly understand the human condition, we had to take account of this third drive. Then he pretty much dropped the whole idea.
The Rise and Fall of Motivation 2.0
Societies, like computers, have operating systems – a set of mostly invisible instructions and protocols on which everything runs. The first human operating system – call it Motivation 1.0 – was all about survival. We were simply trying to survive. From roaming the savannah to gather food to scrambling for the bushes when a saber-toothed tiger approached, that drive guided most of our behaviour. It wasn’t especially elegant, nor was it much different from those of rhesus monkeys, giant apes, or many other animals. But it served us nicely. It worked well. Until it didn’t.
Its successor, Motivation 2.0, was built around external rewards and punishments. Harnessing this second drive has been essential to economic progress around the world, especially during the last two centuries. Consider the Industrial Revolution. Technological developments – steam engines, railroads, widespread electricity – played a crucial role in fostering the growth of industry. But so did less tangible innovations – in particular, the work of an American engineer named Frederick Winslow Taylor.
In the early 1900s, Taylor, who believed businesses were being run in an inefficient, haphazard way, invented what was called “scientific management.” His invention was a form of “software” expertly crafted to run atop the Motivation 2.0 platform. And it was widely and quickly adopted.
Workers, this approach held, were like parts in a complicated machine. If they did the right work in the right way at the right time, the machine would function smoothly. And to ensure that happened, you simply rewarded the behaviour you sought and punished the behaviour you discouraged. People would respond rationally to these external forces – these extrinsic motivators – and both they and the system itself would flourish. We tend to think that coal and oil have powered economic development. But in some sense, the engine of commerce has been fueled equally by carrots and sticks.
The Motivation 2.0 operating system has endured for a very long time. Indeed, it is so deeply embedded in our lives that most of us scarcely recognize that it exists. For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve configured our organisations and constructed our lives around its bedrock assumption: The way to improve performance, increase productivity, and encourage excellence is to reward the good and punish the bad.
At the heart of Motivation 2.0 are two elegant and simple ideas: Rewarding an activity will get you more of it. Punishing an activity will get you less of it. Despite its greater sophistication and higher aspirations, Motivation 2.0 still wasn’t exactly ennobling. It suggested that, in the end, human beings aren’t much different from horses – that the way to get us moving in the right direction is by dangling a crunchier carrot or wielding a sharper stick.
But what this operating system lacked in enlightenment, it made up for in effectiveness. It worked well – extremely well. Until it didn’t. That worked fine for routine twentieth-century tasks. But in the twenty-first century, Motivation 2.0 is proving incompatible with how we organize what we do, how we think about what we do, and how we do what we do. We need an upgrade.
To be continued….
Stay tuned for the concluding part of this article where we will explore the Seven Reasons Carrots and Sticks (often) Don’t Work …