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The Official Baldrige Blog

When Neither a Stick nor a Carrot Will Do: The Science of Motivation in the Workplace


Author Daniel Pink, ©Rebecca Emily Drobis, All Rights Reserved



Fifty years of behavioral science can tell us what really motivates people and their source of engagement in the workplace—and it’s a lot more than a stick (punishment) and carrot (reward) approach, says best-selling author Dan Pink, who will be the Wednesday keynote speaker at this year’s Quest for Excellence® conference.

In an interview with Pink prior to the conference, I explored with him behavioral science and the approaches that are characteristic of Baldrige Award recipients; how intuition relates to evidence; the conditions under which people do their best work; and the importance of a holistic, nonprescriptive approach, like the Baldrige Excellence Framework, to organizational design.

“I’m going to try and give the audience a different lens through which to look at their own work based on the science of motivation, and provide some practical, specific tools, tips, and takeaways that they can put to use in their own offices, hospitals, factories, or classrooms to motivate themselves and others,” says Pink.

For the last 50 years, social scientists have been studying motivation in laboratory settings and field experiments and coming to the conclusion that many of our common business practices are at odds with the science of motivation, says Pink; “I find that quite fascinating because we can use some of this incredible body of research to create organizations and work lives that are more productive and more fulfilling, and in many ways more productive because they are more fulfilling.”

“Today, if you think about the Baldrige sectors, for example, health care and education, those are largely people-based businesses. . . . They’re not cranking out mass-produced goods. So your most important inputs are the people who work there, and you want to make sure those people are fully engaged. You want to make sure that they are bringing their best selves to work, and so you have these intuitive notions about what motivates people, but our intuitions are often out of sync with the science,” he says. “We think that human beings are motivated almost entirely by carrot and stick, when in fact the science tells us it’s actually much more complicated than that. So if you want to create a great place to work, if you want to attract the best talent, if you want to have the most innovative and productive organization, you have to know what really motivates people.”

Over history, a lot business practices were built on intuition, says Pink; for example, we had intuition about how to move goods and services from one place to another, but then the field of logistics taught us to take a much more scientific approach. “Intuition confirmed by evidence is a fabulous thing. But I wouldn’t want to go to a hospital where the physicians were making decisions purely based on intuition,” he added.

Pink, who’s been writing about business behavior and organizations for almost 20 years, says he’s written a lot about creativity and innovative thinking, wondering what the conditions are under which people do creative, breakthrough kinds of work. “What the evidence shows both in terms of behavioral science and an emerging set of best practices is [that you as managers] don’t need to breathe down people’s necks, you don’t try to entice them with carrots and sticks. You don’t have this kind of control that I think is characteristic of many kinds of management. You want to do things in a very different way.”

Pink says there is a lot of connection between the Baldrige Excellence Framework and behavioral science, especially in regards to Baldrige’s holistic and nonprescriptive approaches. “If you look at the research on motivation, it sets out design principles. . . . Baldrige is setting out sort of a broader set of design principles and a broader framework for both the components of excellence and how those components work together, but it doesn’t go too far to say therefore every organization on Tuesday at 9:30 must do these three things.”

How do you design an organization consistent with the research on motivation? Says Pink, “Among the design principles are paying people enough, offering up some measure of autonomy, trying to help people to get better at things that matter, and offering a sense of purpose. If you go beyond that . . . then I think you’ve gone too far on the prescriptive side. I think that Baldrige is analogous to that [research].”

Pink also says that Baldrige takes a holistic view of various components working together. “It isn’t simply about the strategy. It isn’t simply about the people. It isn’t simply about the operations. All of these components are important, but it’s how those components work together that is even more important. If you look at the principles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, they work together. . . . Offering somebody a lot of autonomy but not helping that person with mastery so he/she can get better at something, not giving them feedback on the way they’re growing, what you have then is autonomy without mastery, which is sort of like drift,” he says. “Likewise, mastery without purpose is sort of a narrow, incremental move in technical capability. . . . [Baldrige has] design principles, core components that are essential and in a sense work together, but you have to offer enough discretion to let interesting, smart people do amazing things.”

Pink said one metaphor for holistic organizational design is like the ingredients in a dish; in a great dish, you can’t tell where one ingredient stops and another begins. “Great operations without strategy could become just a very efficient way of doing something stupid,” he said. “A smart strategy without effective operations can be a fantasyland of good intentions where nothing actually gets done. The components need each other. . . . All work together.”

He added, “You could have a great workforce, but if there isn’t effective leadership that puts [the work] in a context to do great stuff, setting the tone, giving a sense of purpose, then you are leaving huge amounts of capacity on the table. If you have leadership but not an effective workforce, then you have the world’s greatest coach, but the world’s crappiest players.”

Pink said Lean and Six Sigma require a great deal of autonomy, but people need to know why it is important to eliminate defects and whether these are the right defects to eliminate. “Since the very early days of Baldrige, there was this idea that you want to put authority closer to the customer, closer to the production, closer to where things are really happening,” he said. “A lot of Lean processes require somebody on the assembly line to be able to stop things if he/she sees a defect, . . . to have the power to do that. And in many cases that’s how Lean systems are effective. There are a lot of synergies between the science of motivation and Lean and the Baldrige Criteria.”

Pink is the author of several best-selling books including To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, which looks at the art and science of sales. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us explores behavioral science to offer a more effective path to high performance, and A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future describes the six abilities individuals and organizations must master in an outsourced, automated age.

Register now for the 28th Annual Baldrige Quest for Excellence Conference in Baltimore, MD, and learn best practices for improving your performance and network with role-model organizations, past and current, from all sectors of the economy to share in their paths to excellence. There are several registration options, including registering for single days and preconference workshops presented by Baldrige Award recipients.

About the author

Dawn Bailey

Dawn Bailey is a writer/editor for the Baldrige Program and involved in all aspects of communications, from leading the Baldrige Executive Fellows program to managing the direction of case studies, social media efforts, and assessment teams. She has more than 25 years of experience, 18 years at the Baldrige Program. Her background is in English and journalism, with degrees from the University of Connecticut and an advanced degree from George Mason University.

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