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iEmployee: Motivate Employees and Avoid a Robot Uprising

CCA LiveE | Tuesday December 13th, 2011 | 0 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

Maslows-PyramidBy Keith Kerlan

We’re all just cogs in the machine!

Actually, not really, but similar sentiments have echoed both loudly from disgruntled masses and quietly from within our minds.  Business has classically sought to dehumanize employment, seeking to drain emotion and expression from the mailroom to the boardroom, ultimately equating “professional” with cold, calculating, and analytical.  In casting people as “labor machines,” businesses erode the adaptability, creativity, expressiveness—the very humanity—of their employees.  Recognizing the difference between employees and equipment can be an opportunity to unlock boundless reserves of success; failure to do so can result in an immediate danger to the sustainability of a venture.

Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration.  Consider, however, the catastrophic post-2008 economy.  This “collapse” can, in part, be attributed to economic models that assumed people to behave predictably and rationally. This assumption did not hold.  People purchased homes that they couldn’t afford at subprime mortgage rates.  Like the bank managers that incensed the sale of these subprime mortgages, these people assumed housing prices would rise indefinitely.  Furthermore, insurance on these mortgages was packaged into CDOs that were ultimately rated lower risk than the mortgages that made them up.  These examples illustrate a level ignorance and maybe even a desire to obfuscate the truth in order to be able to believe a very attractive lie.  It might be argued that this is different from irrationality, but I submit that choosing to ignore important information when making significant financial decisions is, inherently, irrational.  Though, if not that, the ensuing emotionally-fueled swings in the stock market certainly were.

A significant part of the human condition is that we are irrational, unpredictable, and imperfect—that “we are only human.” Businesses, like the economy, are highly complex systems wherein small changes can have profound effects.  These systems are at risk if their chaotic human elements are simplified out of the equation by assuming rationality.  However, recent research into motivation, happiness, and other inherently human conditions has yielded findings about what really drives people, serving to more accurately model/predict behavior—findings that are counterintuitive to the classic business perspective.

Dan Pink, noted scholar on motivation, stipulates that business classically follows “carrot and stick” incentives—rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior (usually with money or lack thereof).  But these incentives don’t scale.  To understand where it begins to fail, we can look to a well-known theory of motivation: Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Monetary incentives (i.e. security of resources) fall into the safety section, relatively low on the pyramid.  Once a person progresses beyond this safety/security requirement, additional money does not directly address any higher need—motivating this person requires incentives and responsibilities that address these needs.

Since the Industrial Revolution, “carrot and stick” incentives have worked very well.  But changing labor trends in the 21st century have pushed its limit.  With advances in technology, most jobs requiring mechanical/rudimentary cognitive ability are going to actual robots.  The jobs people are doing now increasingly require skills that machines can’t easily replicate—notably creativity, emotion/empathy, spontaneity, morality, or conceptual problem solving.  Fortuitously, these skills are the same higher-level needs that motivate people beyond merely seeking security.  An employee reaching these upper echelons of Maslow’s pyramid will simultaneously benefit themselves through enhanced wellbeing and their employer though higher quality work.

So how does business move beyond monetary incentives? According to Pink, higher motivation can be reduced to three driving factors: Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  A number of recent real-world businesses exemplify the use of these drivers to great success: Whole Foods with “hire your own workers,” wherein local branches are in charge of the teams they work with; Zappos with full autonomy for customer service agents, who are freed from various performance metrics and given the right to take however long the need with any given customers problem; Google with “20% time,” wherein 20% of an engineers time is slotted to whatever they want to work on.  Another popular example is Atlassian, which has quarterly “24-hour hackathons.”  Engineers leave the their regular duties behind to work on something they’re excited about.  At the end of the day, they have a show and tell session in and after-party like environment.  In all these experiments, workers reported being more engaged and measurable success followed.

Keep your employees motivated and do so by appealing to their humanity, realizing that this isn’t always a matter of paying more—success will follow.  Sustainable passion naturally comes from employees, once a company’s culture adopts and perpetuates this basic ethos: Employees are not robots. From their humanity comes passion, and from their passion will come success.

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