Motivation + Autonomy = Productivity


What motivates you to go into work in the morning? Is it the people that you work closely with? Is it the professional goals that you’re getting closer to with each passing day? Is it the money?

Yeah, it probably has something to do with the money. Work is a fact of life, but with close to 70% of the workforce in the Unites States reporting that they’re either “disengaged” or “actively disengaged” from their job, there is clearly something missing. In order to get the most productivity that you can out of your work, that work has to be aligned with whatever’s motivating you to do it, plain and simple.

While the money that your job offers might be critical to surviving, recent research suggests that it isn’t the magic motivational bullet that we once thought it to be.

According to this RSAnimate presentation by Dan Pink, best selling motivational author, what drives and motivates us to perform at our best isn’t as simple as you might think. In a study conducted at MIT, student participants were asked to perform a variety of tasks (shooting a basketball, memorizing strings of numbers, word puzzles, etc.) and were offered scaling cash prizes based on their performance.

Now for the weird part.

For those tasks that were purely mechanical, like shooting the basket ball, higher pay resulted in a higher quality of performance. However, for tasks that required any sort of cognitive reasoning, larger cash rewards actually resulted in poorer performance! And this was no anomaly resulting from out of touch students who don’t know the value of money. This experiment was actually  re-produced in Madurai, India, a rural province in which the highest cash prize offered to the MIT students was about 2 month’s pay. Incredibly, the trend held, with the large cash prize serving to decrease participant performance for tasks that required reasoning.

So what does motivate people t0 perform at their best if not the possibility of sweet, sweet cash?

Well, it turns out that once somebody is paid “enough” (enough to not think about money, that is), there are 3 factors that lead to higher performance:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

In one of the studies that Dan uses in his presentation, an Australian software company started to give their programmers and developers a 24 hour period each quarter to work on whatever they wanted to, on the condition that they presented that work after it was over. The results of this one day of autonomous work were a whole range of fixes for their current software and ideas for new products that would have never had the chance to emerge otherwise.

Mastery is the desire to get great at what we do, the urge that drives people to master musical instruments and take on decades of higher education. When we feel that we have an autonomous relationship with our work and that the mastery of that work is contributing toward our ultimate personal and professional purpose, we have a reason to put in the time and get things accomplished.

Check out the presentation from Dan Pink to learn more about the science behind what motivates us!


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