What has changed? When I survey classrooms about the work ethic among different age groups, most students over the age of 40, think that young people today don’t want to work and/or don’t know how to work. I am convinced, as are most students at the end of our Generational Differences Workshop, this is not a generational difference. We are convinced that the needs of the workplace have changed, the type of work we do has changed and the culture has changed. We are also convinced that many of the younger generation have some good points, and we would do well to listen to them. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of young people who are disengaged, entitled, incompetent, and lazy – just as there always have been in every generation. I wonder if we have more knowledge and resources today to engage and inspire more of them.
Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, discusses the gap between what science knows and what business does. Research indicates that the carrot and stick method of motivation does still work on boring, repetitive work, say stuffing envelopes or sweeping the floor. But, all bets are off once you introduce the requirement of cognitive skills, like planning how to stuff the envelopes, or the need to make what seems like simple decisions: should you use labels to address the envelopes or is it better to type each address directly on the envelope? Is it important to use real stamps or is it okay to use a postage meter? Which floor should be swept first? Should I pick up the chairs first? Will the floor be mopped after? How frequently? In order to be expected to ask and to figure out the answers to the questions, even simple jobs require the employee to have some sort of more intrinsic motivation. The more creativity required in the job, the less effective the carrot and stick method is. In fact, in highly creative work, financial incentives have been known to decrease productivity. For instance, asking an artist to paint better paintings for a financial reward proved that artists receiving financial incentives actually produced inferior work, compared to those who were only intrinsically motivated. Most of us do not work in factories, doing mindless work that requires no creativity whatsoever. Even factories today, generally use complex machines and techniques that require more skill. Most of the kind of work that succeeded with carrot and stick motivation has been replaced by machines or outsourced to overseas labor. The work we do today is different from the work done just a generation or two ago.
In the interest of full disclosure, this theory applies to employees who make a livable wage in the first place. We cannot begin to talk about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators if the employee cannot pay their rent or buy groceries.
Other complexities arise with incentive plans. Even when incentives are effective, they often produce unintended
consequences. Let’s say you pay straight commission to sales people. You pay them to produce sales. You do not pay them to produce sales in a friendly or service oriented manner, or ethical sales, profitable sales, sales to people who can pay or become a repeat customer - Just sales. Be very careful what you ask for. If you pay executives to produce results, you will likely get the results you required. You get precisely the results, often at the expense of what could have been better results. If you pay a manager through profit sharing, will they find value in investing in the long-term research, development, marketing or training that insures your company’s long-term success? Or, will they short all the long term investments to show a short-term profit to get this quarter or this year’s bonus? Either way, you have shifted their focus form creative work to creative incentive-earning. Even if it works, it may still fail.
To get the fully involved, highly contributing employees we want, we need to find ways to engage employees through a whole-person approach to leadership. We need to meet the needs of their minds, hearts, body and soul. What are their talents, passions, needs and convictions? What are their long-term personal goals and how can we help them achieve their own desires? How do we help them grow in the direction that is important to them? How do we involve them in the decisions of the company? How do we get them to want to share their wisdom for the good of the company? How do we set aside our egos to ask for their input and harvest their creativity? We design our systems and structure for just the opposite. We use our meetings and communication formats to tell them what we want, not to ask them to help create a better company. There is a better way. Your homework is to think about what motivates
you and your staff and we will continue this discussion in our next column.