What Motivates Workers

It’s Not Just Money

Conventional wisdom tells us what motivates most employees is money.  Classical economics confirms:  the bigger the salary, the more work an employer can expect to get — and better work too.

A new book challenges this, with strong evidence to back it up.  To be sure, money still works as a reward, but according to Daniel Pink in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:  “Rewards can deliver a short-term boost—just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off—and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.”  But the belief in the motivating power of money has proved to be powerfully resilient.

Over the years, a number of important thinkers have questioned the power of money as the primary reward for work.  Renowned management theorists such as Douglas McGregor, Frederick Herzberg, and W. Edward Deming have all stressed the fact that workers are not like rats in a maze.  They seek more meaning in their work as well as more individual control over it.  But by and large these thinkers are remembered for their innovations and peripheral impact, not such core beliefs.  Human resource managers still focus their attention on compensation.

Then there are the dramatic success stories of companies founded on an entirely different set of beliefs, the examples of Wikipedia, Linux, Mozilla as well the concepts of “social businesses” advanced by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. “These are companies that raise capital, develop products, and sell them in an open market but do so in the service of a larger social mission.”  Their success is based on their ability to galvanize their workers’ sense of purpose rather than reward them with high salaries.

Finally, recent experimental evidence gathered by behavioral economists offers hard data.  Pink cites the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at Rochester University, based on the idea that we have “three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy. When they’re thwarted, our motivation, productivity, and happiness plummet.”  They call that “self-determination theory,” SDT.

[For a clever and entertaining summary of these new ideas, watch this video by RSA Animate]

Pink believes that society’s conviction about the motivating power of money has persisted because it is “easy to understand, simple to monitor, and straightforward to enforce.”   But to account for our resistance to the accumulated evidence, the explanation has to run deeper.  If it were just that “simple” and “straightforward,” our ideas would have changed in response to the evidence.

A core tenet in our market-centered ideology, the power of money has become an article of faith in our secular religion.  It is how we have come to measure the value of all things, how we know what anything is worth.

Perhaps there are other drives than those suggested by SDT, but believing in the motivating power of anything else is a little bit like challenging the power of gravity.  We might like to believe it, but we can’t quite bring ourselves to take the first step off the cliff.