Of Rewards and Punishment: Keynoter Examines 'Physics of Behavior'

"Using a system of carrots and sticks as motivators in our organizations when they're "demonstrably failing before our very eyes" is not good enough, said bestselling author Daniel Pink in a presentation designed to dissect the mechanics of motivation.

CHICAGO--Whether it is from our perspective as employers, employees, parents, or just humans, we intuitively know that when you reward a behavior you typically get more of it and when you punish a behavior you get less of it. Right? Well, no, not always.

"It's not that simple," said Daniel Pink, delivering the keynote at Monday's opening general session to kick off day two of ASSE's Safety 2011 at Chicago's McCormick Place West. "If you look at what the science says from the past 50 years, you'll find that's true some of the time but not true much of the time."

Pink, author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," said that when it comes to the "physics of behavior," much of what we innately feel is true in the realm of rewards and punishment is, in fact, misguided.

"For simple, mechanical, algorhythmic kinds of work, rewards do tend to work very well," he said, "but when you ask people to do complicated, conceptual work--work that requires creative thinking--then that simple rewards system works less well. And there's been a shift from simple mechanical work in our society to a more complicated notion of risk management" so that, more and more, the workplace is requiring work of the complex and creative variety, he said.

Using a system of carrots and sticks as motivators in our organizations when they're "demonstrably failing before our very eyes" is not good enough, he added. "Sometimes when you punish behavior you do get less of it, but that's less true more often than we think," he said. "People are complex and have complex reasons for what they think and do. . . We have to abandon having such a simple theory of social physics.

"What does work is money. Money matters, and it matters a lot, just not in the way we think it does. . . . The best use of money is to pay people enough that they're willing to take money off the table and be engaged in the work at hand." Paying people different amounts for doing the same job also tends to work as a "huge demotivator," Pink noted.

Focusing on how managers can best engage their employees, Pink said it comes down to offering workers healthy doses of three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

"The only way you as an individual engage is if you get their by your own steam," he said. "Humans engage only when they get there on their own. So, as employers, if you give people a little more freedom to innovate and do things their own way, they do better.

In terms of mastery, Pink noted humans "like to get better at stuff just because we like to get better at stuff." He said studies involving polling people at work have found that "the single biggest motivator is making progress in one's work. The days workers are making notable progress are the days they're the most motivated, most engaged, and happiest. And it's self-renewing: if you make progress today, you show up tomorrow."

Progress depends on getting feedback, he added. "We need to make the workplace rich in feedback. Annual performance reviews are not enough. . . . Feedback that comes immediately is taken more seriously, and feedback coming from our peers is perceived as more legitimate."

Providing people with a sense of purpose requires focusing less on how a task is done and more on the why behind it. "People want to know why what they do matters," Pink said. "When they do, it leads to an uplift in performance. That's sort of the 'secret sauce'--giving more time to the why.

"We have this belief that to motivate people it requires rewards and punishiment, but we need a more sophisticated approach. People also do things because they're interesting and because they're the right things to do," Pink said.

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