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How carrot and stick motivation approaches are ruining your creativity

When I first read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates UsDrive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us [AF] from Daniel Pink, I was blown away. I hadn’t heard very much about the content so I didn’t know what to expect. I just thought it was a book on motivation. I’ve worked with managers who love to create “incentive bonuses” and have had employees who even—get this—asked for bonuses when completing their assigned work on time. I’ve also worked with personal development workshops that suggest you create personal incentives as a reward for achieving a goal. If that goal is to get to 100 pushups in a single shot, that sort of incentive system seems to work fine, but I’ve always had this uneasy feeling about doing such things when creativity and problem solving is on the line.

Imagine how blown away I was to find out that a Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded in 2002 to psychologist Daniel Kahneman. His research, along with studies backed by MIT, the University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon and the Federal Reserve, along with other studies from psychologists, sociologists and economists show that larger rewards led to poorer performance in tasks that called for anything beyond rudimentary cognitive skill.

It’s easy to miss some of the important details here. This does not say that compensation isn’t important. A person should be compensated in such a way that they are not “worried” about money and therefore can relax into the creative and problem solving tasks. In doing freelance writing, I find that getting a sufficient retainer to start seems to increase my productivity whereas having the compensation “held hostage” actually seems to lead to my mind wandering to other ways to generate cash flow.

Which is to say if you don’t pay people enough, they won’t be motivated. After that point has been reached, “bonuses” do not enhance performance in creative and problem solving jobs.

For some more info, watch this video from RSA Animate. The content from Daniel Pink would be great on its own, but is really enhanced with this creative video accompaniment.

This video from TED is also worth watching.

“This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and it’s also one of the most ignored.” –Daniel Pink

Here are some additional links to studies cited by Daniel Pink in his talks and his book.

What do you think? Is this a surprise to you? Don’t believe it? Any personal experiences? Leave a comment below.