Beyond the carrot patch: motivate thyself!

One of so many things that the best rock groups can teach us about team performance is the value of self-direction.

Most of the top bands—from the Beatles to U2 to Green Day—have operated with a maximum of personal autonomy. No one was peeking over their shoulder, micromanaging them, directing them what to write or how to play.

This is helped by the fact that bands usually hire and fire their managers, not the other way around, which makes it abundantly clear who works for whom. (See my earlier post on this.)

The importance of personal autonomy was brought home to me again reading psychologist Edward Deci's 1995 classic "Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation"—based on decades of research by himself, colleague Richard Ryan, and others.

Their experiments overwhelmingly confirmed a significant (and heterodox) proposition: under most conditions individuals and teams operate best when motivated by intrinsic values, and worst when motivated by external controls and contingent rewards, including monetary bonuses. ("Contingent" means if you do or achieve X then you'll be rewarded—the classic carrot approach.)

Granted, it's important for workers to have sufficient—and equitable—baseline pay so that the whole issue of compensation is off the table. But additional financial incentives—contingent "if/then" rewards such as cash bonuses—are not useful motivators except for grunt work or tasks deemed undesirable.

To achieve outcomes that require some resourcefulness, intuition, or creativity external controls and rewards are usually counterproductive—narrowing people's focus, blinding them to outside-the-box solutions, encouraging them to take shortcuts, and compromising any long-term benefits that aren't rewarded by short-term bonuses. (Wall Street provides us more than a few examples, including a quarterly-earnings obsession.)

Dan Pink in his 2009 bestseller "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us"—which pulls in dozens of additional field studies by behavioral scientists, sociologists, and economists—comes to a similar conclusion: "The science shows that the secret to high performance isn't our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive—our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose."

Unfortunately in our business organizations, management—by virtue of its reliance on carrot-and-stick controls—pursues compliance at the expense of engagement, while undermining and weakening intrinsic motivation. In Pink's words: "This era doesn't call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction."

So while a disruptive world economy—especially the Creative Economy—demands from us more energetic, imaginative, and innovative performance our businesses (and often our schools) still incentivize the opposite. (No wonder I have to rely on rock & roll for daily inspiration.)

Here's a terrific video, animated by RSA, that illustrates Dan Pink's findings.

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


  1. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about this. There has always been a debate in management circles about the value of pay for performance but I didn’t know there was this much research that repudiated it. But what about the less obvious incentives like promotions? What about other perks you get by being a high performer? Even praise? Aren’t those external motivators? They seem to work pretty well in business.

  2. A fair question, Kate.

    Edward Deci would say that such incentives aren't usually offered upfront as contingent promises — in other words, management is not usually saying, "if you do 'X' I'll give you a promotion" (or a corner office or a good parking space). Such incentives could be considered "external" motivators BUT as long as they're not explicit quid-pro-quo offers they don't carry the baggage of explicit controls. And research has shown they don't impair intrinsic motivation like contingent rewards, especially financial ones.

    And praise is usually given spontaneously so it too is unlikely to be experienced as a control.

  3. well, an interesting theory for sure. but...if you dangle enough greenbacks in front of me i'll do just about anything you want. and i'm thinking i'm not the only one.

    and the great rockers weren't motivated by cash? ever hear the song "money" by the beatles? seriously, dude...

  4. Anon: the behavioral scientists DO agree that cash rewards are effective for getting people to do uninteresting tasks or "mechanical" work — as Dan Pink's video explains. But studies show that for work that involves imagination, creativity, problem solving, etc., contingent rewards — especially monetary ones — are counterproductive and actually diminish intrinsic motivation.

    The Beatles — like any rock band — were certainly encouraged by the possibility of future financial rewards, as well as by some combination of stardom, adoration by women, musical mastery, artistic self-expression, etc. (as well as the immediate fun of writing and playing music). But a pile of riches was not offered to them by someone on a contingent basis. A big financial reward — aside from modest pay received from their local performances each night — was a possible future outcome only after a very long process. John, Paul, and George had been working together for over 4 years (outhustling every other band from England between 1960 and 1963) before experiencing significant fame and even longer before seeing significant income. It’s a TEXTBOOK case of internal motivation. NO ONE plays rock & roll primarily for the money.

  5. Just had to add that Stu Sutcliffe, the original Beatles bassist who played with the band in 1960 & 61, but who didn't live to see the fruits of their hard work, passed away 49 years ago today of a brain aneurysm. He was a precociously talented painter in his own right. See earlier post: /notes/2010/03/no-job-experience-cool-youre-hired

  6. Love that Dan Pink stuff! Today far more musical acts than ever work for themselves via digital self-production and distribution. The era of the all-powerful label demanding carrot-and-stick conformance to a strict musical formula is receding rapidly. It's a much healthier anti-corporate scenario today that rewards self-reliance and self-starters.

  7. Ken, you're right that record companies once exerted significant pressure on a band — more so than a band's business manager, now that I think about it. But the good bands managed to push back against it, at least once they earned enough clout. I guess I have mixed feelings about the old days of the record business because in my favorite era of rock, the 60s, the labels demanded at least 3 or 4 singles and 2 albums a year from their top acts — and the great bands (like the Beatles & Stones) responded beautifully. Perhaps that worked (for a time) because the bands were willingly on board with the game as it was played then. But you could also argue that the Beatles' best work came about when they stopped touring, stepped off the treadmill, and took the time to really experiment (as with Sgt Pepper's). Gotta noodle on that one some more...

  8. It's all very well calling for companies to encourage energetic, imaginative and innovative performance. I have to ask:

    - Are energetic, imaginative and innovative people attracted to working for MegaCorp Inc in the first place?

    - Isn't it more likely that energetic, imaginative and innovative people are a) already employed, possibly self-employed, in a more obvious environment; or b) already climbing the corporate ladder?

    - Can any ammount of incentivising really and consistently lift people from being B and C players in the energy, imagination and innovation department into A players?

    - A call for innovation is fine but... how much innovation is there? Can we all out-innovate our competitors on demand? Isn't the nature of innovation and imagination rooted in the idea that it's exceptional rather than something that can be turned on at will?

    I'm all for harnessing the ideas and suggestions of everyone in the business. Most people have got at least one good idea in them so let's bring them out. But I do think we can get a bit carried away with the innovation and imagination buzzwords.

  9. Mark: The focus of Edward Deci’s and Dan Pink’s books isn’t really innovation but self-motivation and, most specifically, autonomy.

    Now can “any amount of incentivizing really and consistently lift people from being B and C players in the energy, imagination and innovation department in A players?”

    Better question: can TEAMS (or entire organizations) that are performing at B or C levels (re energy, imagination, and innovation) be self-motivated to perform at A levels? The answer is yes.

    “Isn’t the nature of innovation and imagination rooted in the idea it’s exceptional rather than something that can be turned on at will?”

    Not at all. As Deci, Pink, and hundreds of behavioral scientists, psychologists, and sociologists have pointed out, energy, imagination, and innovation come naturally to children and continue to develop unless we TRAIN it out of them — which, regrettably, happens all too often in our schools and businesses. True, it can’t always be rapidly re-ignited but in an environment where autonomy is valued, where carrot & sticks are minimized, where one’s work has a sense of purpose, it usually returns.

    I’ve seen it work in some of the most unlikely environments, including copper mines, in departments (teams) that had previously been underperforming. Once they were set up as self-managing units (with the necessary training, including leadership, communication, financial literacy, computer basics, etc.) they flourished, with significant improvements in production, unit cost, and safety. The teams became NOTICEABLY more energetic, innovative, and even healthier. Job retention increased and sick days decreased.

    I too get tired of all the chatter about innovation and imagination but not when I see companies actually do the work to liberate the creative energies of the workforce by creating an atmosphere conducive to SELF-motivation. That is necessary for developing innovation as an deep-seated organizational capacity.

  10. Amazing and creative video. I commend the author. I agree - purpose, fun, creativity are the highest motivators beyond making enough money to manage. Fulfilling one's purpose, having fun and being creative, saying what's true, and helping others, are inherently and immediately satisfying.

    Manipulating others to do what you want without the input of their own creativity and autonomy - is a killer! Lesson - support others' creativity.

  11. Herb, RSA Animate is a service of the The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. I can't get enough of their videos.

    Good luck on your book.

  12. Hey John!!

    Simply put, the old kick in the ass to get you motivated psychology. Wish this post was around when I had some of my old bands!!


  13. Well, actually, Nick, it's a kick-yourself-in-the-ass approach — however anatomically challenging that may be.

  14. That video was OUTSTANDING.

    Also, the idea that creativity is squashed by money is completely reasonable, and has driven me nuts for years. My wife may never believe it, but it's obviously happening out there. Money will eventually go away, but innovation, and creativity, is here to stay.

  15. Money doesn't have to squash creativity and I think it's fine for creative individuals and teams to be well-compensated. But as Deci, Pink, and others have found, when you provide SHORT-TERM, CONTINGENT financial incentives for creativity, problem-solving, etc., you're likely to get diminished returns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »