I love Dan Pink’s RSA talk on our mistaken assumptions about what makes good work possible.
The subtitle of his talk could be ‘Don’t think you can manipulate people into making their most genuine contribution’.
Paying bonuses for performance, argues Pink, works out only in very particular situations. Promise to reward people more for performing a mindless mechanical task, and often, yes, they’ll find the wherewithal to do it better, or faster.
But make bonuses the reason to do work that requires care, thoughtfulness, or imagination – especially if that’s your primary method of engaging them – and you’re most likely to see poorer results.
I don’t think this should surprise us. We know pretty quickly when we’re being manipulated and it often makes us cynical and resentful.
The very idea that bonuses would increase performance arises from the still-influential work of the behaviourist psychologists of the last century. They argued that the inner experience of human beings is irrelevant, and that we can decide what to do by looking just at outer stimulus and response patterns.
In many organisations we’re still caught up in the simplistic understanding of people that the behaviourists inspired. The consequence? The design of management practice based on the reward and punishment responses of animals such as rats.
But we’re human beings, with rich inner worlds that cannot be ignored just because they’re hard to measure. We are brought to life by meaning, belonging, contribution and creativity. We’re not machines, nor do we contribute any of our higher human faculties in response to a straightforwardly manipulative stimulus such as a bonus.
When we’re treated – or treat ourselves – as if we’re something less than the complex, meaning-seeking beings that we are, it should be no surprise that we – and our work – are diminished.
Pay people enough to have the issue of money be off the table, argues Pink. And then you need to ask deeper questions.
Here’s the animation from his talk, with thanks to Geraldine for introducing it to me.