I would like to bring some research to your attention. Depending on where you are in the organisation, you might not want to show this to your boss – it might cost you money. But if you are the boss, you need to know about this. It might revolutionise your business.

Much of my reading these days is about the psychology of work, particularly collaboration and motivation. A recurrent character in that reading is Dan Pink, an almost-lawyer, turned psychologist. The topic of this post is wonderfully covered in his TED talk last year:

Essentially what Dan says is “Our motivations are unbelievably interesting… … We are not as endlessly manipulable and as predictable as you would think.” – what science tells us about human motivation, and what we do in business, are heavily at odds with each other. Dan talks about three keys to getting people motivated, which we’ll come back to in a moment.

“There’s a mismatch between what science knows, and what business does.”

Rewards that Don’t Work

Many studies, including the one from MIT that Dan references, show that the size of the reward does not have the effect we would expect. For non-mechanical tasks, and especially those that require innovative/non-linear thinking, large rewards are actually counter productive. The findings have been replicated many times.

The fact is that higher incentives lead to poorer performance. For simple, rule-based tasks, the ‘carrot and stick’ approach does work. But for more complete problems, the kind we face in business today, it doesn’t. Motivation is more complex than that. Now understand, if you don’t pay people enough, they won’t be motivated. You need to pay people enough to ‘take money off the table’, as Dan Pink puts it.

I love this infographic approach to the podcast from Dan’s more recent talk at the RSA – thanks to Eaon Pritchard and Geraid Hensel for bring it to my attention:

Back to the three factors Dan mentions, and you can set about putting things right.


“you probably want to do something interesting… …let me get out of your way”

One of the subtexts behind the move to more ‘distributed’ businesses, which is driving the growth of our business, and Milestone Planner, is the move to a more autonomous work force. Describe the problem, not the solution, and let your greatest brains get to work on it. Which leads on to:


People want to be good at things. Actually, scrap that, good people want to be BRILLIANT. Let’s face it, no-one wants to suck at what they do – we all know that isn’t fun. Let people do what they are good at, and help them to be good at what they do. Provide the right tools, environment and training to enable that to happen.


I’ve written about this at length here and elsewhere, and many other people have too. People want to make a difference, and the easiest way to connect with that is to give them a purpose that links what they do to making the world in which they live “a little bit better” – Does everyone in the business know what it’s purpose is? Do they understand how that makes a difference, and who it makes a difference too? That simple connection makes a huge difference (and it’s one of the reasons we provide a view across projects in MilestonePlanner – so that people get to see the bigger picture, and use SurveyOptic to help people understand what matters to their employees).