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The donkey can motivate itself

As teachers, parents or bosses, we think we’ve got motivation fairly clear don’t we? If we want someone to do more of something, we give them an incentive such as money, accolades or prizes (commonly referred to as “the carrot”). If we want someone to do less of something, we hit them with a sanction or reprimand (commonly referred to as “the stick”). However, relying on this type of motivation might be making a bit of an ass of ourselves.

You see author and economist Dan Pink points to some startling research that suggests the carrot and stick method is not just ineffective, it actually reduces motivation.

A study was conducted in India, where participants were asked to complete a variety of challenges, such as unscrambling anagrams, tossing tennis balls at a target, and recalling strings of digits. These participants were given different levels of reward if they could attain a certain performance target in each of these tasks. The low reward group received 4 rupees (a day’s pay), the medium reward group received 40 rupees (two weeks pay), and the high reward group received 400 rupees (nearly 5 months pay) if they achieved these performance targets. What the researchers found that was the medium reward group did not perform any better than the low reward group, and the high reward group performed worse than the other two conditions.

This is not an isolated example. You may be familiar with the “candle and tack box" problem. You have to pin the candle to the wall in such a way as the wax won’t drip down the wall (The answer is to take the tacks out the tack box, tack the empty box onto the wall, and use that as a platform for the candle. It requires “thinking outside the box”). Again when you offer rewards for the speed of completing this task, the higher the incentive the longer it takes someone to find the solution.

So what is going on here? Incentives reduce performance and creativity? This is not good for business! Dan explains that the “carrot and the stick” model reduces people’s Intrinsic Motivation. This is someone’s inner desire to do something. You have things in your life that are so important to you, you don’t have to be paid to do them, do you? You see when we incentivise something, we dull this inner drive. Human’s are purpose-driven machines. We don’t like to do things because we’re paid to do them. We want to do them because they are important to us.

Dan proposes three components that need to be in place to activate this Intrinsic Drive. The first component is Autonomy. This requires releasing the shackles from people, and giving them more control over their work. If this sounds preposterous to you, then perhaps you might want to hear the example of a small company who have pulled this off. Their name is Google.

Google allows their employees to spend 20% of their time working on projects of their choice. If you use Gmail, or Google Translate, then you have sampled the results of this 20% time. When people are granted autonomy, they don’t slack off, they become more inventive.

So would you like your company to be more like Google? Then there are four T’s that you can influence to make this happen.


Give people a choice over the type of tasks they want to do. Instead of cracking the whip and assigning people to projects. Give them a choice in the matter. People will choose the task that resonates with them the strongest, that they are best equipped for, and thus will produce a better result than one they are forced into.


One of the biggest productivity killers in the field of Law is the billable hour. The billable hour changes lawyers focus from output (producing winning results) to input (registering higher numbers of hours). This encourages procrastination, engagement with trivial work and even cheating and lying to get the number as high as possible. So instead, grant your workers some sovereignty over their time. Give workers autonomy over where and when they work. Focus on results, rather than time spent on the work. As long as they get the work done, let them manage their own time to get the task done.


Call centre work has a chronically high turnover rate. In some call centre the turnover rate exceeds 100%, meaning that if you record the people working there today, none of them will be there a year later. Call centres are rigid, highly pressured, and reps are required to adhere to company guidelines and work through scripts when speaking to a customer. Often they have a manager listening in to their every word.

The company Zappos use a different approach. They let their reps deal with the customer however they please. There is no script and no manager hovering over their shoulder. Through granting their reps autonomy over how they achieve their results, Zappos has a turnover rate of almost zero and one of the best rankings for customer service. Workers who have autonomy over how they do their work produce better results.


Team dynamics are a vital part of creating positive results for your business. Once again, research is showing that allowing people some choice in who joins the team generates better results. Workers who are part of a self-organised team report greater satisfaction and wellbeing than those in an inherited team. The organic food chain Whole Foods has a voting system. A new employee has a 30-day probation period, and the team votes on whether they want that worker to stay on after that period. Allow your workers to gather into teams and work on shared visions, that is how Google gains results from its “20 percent time”. Workers join together to work on projects they are passionate about, and the results speak for themselves.

So take a look at these four Ts. Could you grant some more autonomy to your workers in one of these areas? It may seem a little scary and counter-intuitive at first. But run a small experiment. Another company who now grant “20 percent time”, Atlassian, started just by running a 24hr experiment. At 2pm on a Thursday, the CEOs of Atlassian gave their workers 24hrs to work on anything they wanted, providing they were able to present a tangible result 24hrs later. This experiments produced some vital repairs and innvoation, and so the CEO’s decided to run this experiment on a regular basis. What small experiment could you conduct to discover the power of autonomy in your company?

A post by David McCrae author of The Last 60 Minutes

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