Leadership and culture

Motivation, management, and mastery

Published on September 30, 2021

In the IT department and elsewhere, the way leaders motivate their teams regularly sabotages their teams’ success, impairing performance rather than improving it. As we’ll see below, the failure reflects a simple yet stubborn mismatch between different types of tasks and different types of motivators. The fix, then, lies in understanding those differences and employing motivators that work for the task at hand.

Has your business been incentivizing productivity with extrinsic factors? Promising a wage with one hand and holding the threat of dismissal in the other? This is increasingly the wrong management strategy to take, especially as work becomes more heuristic, i.e., complex and cognitively demanding, with creative and unstructured solutions from multiple domains.

Managing and compensating workers only with extrinsic motivations doesn’t provide workers the necessary mental space for completing heuristic, 21st century work. Likewise, businesses may find that they’ve been building shaky foundations by managing instead of leading, as well as treating workers more like the goods and services they can produce instead of a wellspring of capital.

Money as a motivator

Extrinsic motivators narrow our focus and concentrate our minds, which increases our output and productivity on algorithmic tasks, i.e., tasks that have a simple set of rules and have clear, well-defined outcomes. These motivators are either “carrots” such as promotions, bonuses, days off, praise, and other rewards or “sticks” such as demotions, verbal or written warnings, pay docking, and other punishments. The simpler the set of rules and the clearer the destination, the more sharply these motivators drive algorithmic tasks.

Unlike much of the mechanical and industrial work performed in the 20th century, 21st century work is becoming less algorithmic and more heuristic. It cannot be reliably outsourced, automated, or solved by an algorithm. Today’s heuristic, 21st century work:

  • Has complex, unclear rules.
  • Requires searches of inquiry and examination that may lead to dead ends.
  • Is dependent on creative solutions and unstructured knowledge sharing.

When incentivized with extrinsic motivators, performance for heuristic tasks almost always declines. These incentives backfire because the narrow, concentrated focus that they foster is exactly the opposite of the expansive, diffuse mindset needed to perform novel, creative work.

Using extrinsic motivators to improve performance of heuristic tasks tends to crush creativity, diminish good behavior, become additive, instill short-term thinking, and spur cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior. Unaware of alternatives, most managers use extrinsic motivators as a hammer and treat every task like a nail, regardless of the task’s algorithmic or heuristic nature. Fortunately, there are other motivational tools available—intrinsic motivators.

More than a wage

The physical, mental, and social demands of 21st century, IT-aligned tasks have outgrown the economic incentive structures of the 20th century. Businesses want peak performance from their workforce, but for creative tasks and knowledge work, money needs to be removed as a primary motivator.

Make sure workers are generously compensated. Enable more individuals the breathing room needed to slow down and think both deeply and broadly about complex issues. Take care of their physical, mental, and social needs to the best of your ability and in return, you’ll be delighted to find that many people have the capacity to achieve deep and productive work when their day-to-day concerns are satisfied.

Ideally, when it comes to extrinsic rewards like bonuses, they should be unexpected and offered only after a task is complete. Non-tangible rewards such as praise—meaningful feedback about the work someone is doing—can provide a sense of satisfaction without running the risks of tangible rewards mentioned earlier.

Intrinsic motivation in the workplace

Whether it’s due to improper incentives, diminished autonomy, or a lack of flow, many jobs don’t properly motivate the intrinsic behaviors needed for 21st century work. We talked in a previous piece about how effective teams require trust, safety, vulnerability, and candor. All of these aspects also resonate with Daniel Pink’s findings for the factors that increase motivation: challenge, curiosity, control, cooperation & competition, and recognition. It bears repeating: any work that requires creative thinking should not be streamlined or “algorithmatized”—and attempting to do so will be counterproductive. Creativity isn’t another metric to optimize for.

Businesses must provide workers with context for autonomy and mastery, as well as outline the goals, policies, and resonant phrases for their company identity. Start with the “Why” of your organization. When provided the necessary resources, employees that are tasked with creative and knowledge work tend to be more productive, self-motivated, and engaged in their work. Employees are also more likely to report satisfaction with the work that they’re doing.

Consider the following exercises for increasing motivation in a 21st century workplace:

Autonomy:

  • Humans have an intrinsic desire to direct their lives, so a worker will be more engaged in their work if they have autonomy over task, technique, time, and team.
  • Managers can support autonomy by conducting semi-regular autonomy audits. Have each employee anonymously rate their autonomy over task, technique, time, and team on a scale of 1-10. Compare scores within teams, across teams, and organization-wide to identify which areas managers need to relinquish control, and which might need more direct involvement. Managers can also encourage creative workers by enabling a “20% time” or “10% time” rule, where employees are provided the time and space to pursue tasks that interest them outside of their typical duties.

Mastery:

  • People will seek opportunities to enrich their abilities, whether that’s deepening their skills or learning new ones to complement their existing skillset. Mastery begins with flow, but requires effort, deliberate practice, an infinite mindset, and the understanding that mastery is an asymptotic endeavor (to always be striven for but never ultimately reached).
  • Managers should involve others in goal-setting exercises. Identify the areas where an employee wants to improve and work towards aligning those with the business/team’s goals. This can inform team or title changes. Additionally, managers can help identify the “Goldilocks zone”—work that is not too hard and not too easy—for each employee and balance workloads with this in mind.

Purpose:

  • Most people have an intrinsic desire to belong to large and enduring causes. For many companies, their aspirational and guiding principle is to make money, but that’s no longer a big enough motivator. Nowadays, skilled workers are seeking organizations that combine profit maximization with purpose maximization.
  • Use purpose to animate employees and spur them to action, don’t motivate with rewards. A company’s purpose should be reflected in its policies so that employees can pursue that purpose with autonomy. Create an environment that makes people feel good about participating, without leaving them hollow.

Leading, not managing

Many companies don’t promote intrinsically motivated behavior because they’re stuck in the “carrot and stick” management framework of the 20th century. They’re caught in the momentum of the technologies and social structures that grew dependent on extrinsic motivators.

Changing processes and protocols can be difficult, but decision makers should keep an open mind when it comes to motivating their workforce and promoting mastery, autonomy, and purpose. To that point, here are a few management goals to consider:

  • Growth is a mindset: Promote personal development by meeting with employees to identify which skills they’re interested in growing, which skills they’re competent in, and which ones fill them with a sense of fulfillment.
  • Manage results, not people: Support worker autonomy by allowing them to set their own schedule and—as much as possible—work in the location of their choosing. Performance should be judged by the output of an employee, not by micro-managing every decision they make. Communicate the team and company goals, then provide employees the tools they need. Do you want them to succeed? Then trust them to work at their own pace.
  • Culture is capital: People typically want their work to matter, so a workplace should identify its purpose and guiding principals. A company rich in culture generates a currency that carries weight in the minds of its employees: a shared sense of purpose.

Closing considerations

The key takeaway here shouldn’t necessarily be to “automate everything you can, then pay talented people for their time.” It takes more than that; the human side of work is all about building relationships between people, ideas, and markets.

  • Don’t be too quick to automate away certain jobs or split task types between roles. Some roles are at peak performance when combining simple and complex tasks.
  • Losing a worker means more than freeing up their budgeted salary. There are intangibles like institutional knowledge and working relationships that will deteriorate without them. As a minimum, keep your workers happy by compensating them well.
  • Try going beyond only hiring the best fit candidate for complex roles. In some cases, an “untested” worker can gain skill or demonstrate talent in a new domain when provided the requisite opportunity and leadership.

No business will want or even need to implement everything outlined above. However, rethinking the way you motivate your team in light of the work at hand can lead to substantial rewards, both tangible and intangible. In fact, at ManageEngine and our parent company, Zoho Corporation, we’ve taken these lessons to heart, investing in people, giving them time to develop, and thriving for 25 years. Our efforts are paying off. Yours will, too.

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