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.