I recently watched a very interesting, much-linked-to-and-discussed TED talk with Dan Pink entitled “on the surprising science of motivation.” Pink presents a case for why extrinsic motivation—rewards and punishments—worked great for manufacturing and compliance, but is counterproductive for knowledge work and creativity. He cites many interesting psychological studies as to why intrinsic motivation—a desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose—works much better for engagement and self-direction, critical factors for contemporary knowledge work.
Pink presents two kinds of radical changes to workplaces that increase intrinsic motivation: 20% time and the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). 20% time is famously employed at Google, where employees get to work on whatever projects they want for 20% of their designated hours. This unusual work structure has been said to have given birth to many of the cool Google features many people love, such as Gmail. ROWE is an even more radical idea, which is that employees are given full autonomy to work whenever they want, from wherever they want, and meetings are optional. The only things that matter are getting results defined by the company.
Many blogs in the personal development/marketing sphere have covered ROWE and 20% time, usually very positively, and rarely covering any socio-cultural, economic, or political aspects of these ideas besides that of increased productivity. What would be the likely implications for society if such measures were much more widely implemented? How might they benefit society, and what potential risks or drawbacks would there be?
I consider these to be important questions for the future of personal development. Many people in developed nations cite work as their number one stress in life. Reducing stress and increasing meaningfulness of work would benefit many people, and could be a source of rich personal development. But these innovations in management could also have potentially negative downsides for the individual and society.
Much of the online personal development blog sphere is dedicated to finding meaningful work, usually through small-business entrepreneurship. Many buzzwords and catch phrases have been created to capture the spirit of doing what you love and getting paid for it, such as solopreneur, ittybiz, career renegade, the 4-hour workweek, black sheep, biggification, the art of nonconformity, and escape from cubicle nation. Most personal development bloggers are not seeking meaningful work within existing workplaces, but many are excited about 20% time and ROWE, as these business structures promise much of the same opportunities for autonomy, mastery, and purpose as entrepreneurship, without as much of the risk.
Dan Pink defines autonomy as “the urge to direct our lives,” mastery as “the desire to get better and better at something that matters,” and purpose as “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.” These are self-actualization needs as defined by Abraham Maslow. It could hardly get better for human beings to have all of our basic needs met and to feel like we are contributing to society by doing what we most love.
20% time allows employees to work on what they find most interesting, bringing out creative ideas that we want to work on. No worker would rationally object to that. ROWE allows employees to work in ways that fit their energy levels and lifestyles (e.g. family life), while encouraging creative solutions to problems instead of just putting in your hours at the office. These strategies create conditions for the best of entrepreneurship to be enjoyed by employees of existing businesses.
ROWE and 20% time have been shown to be better for productivity and creativity, which if implemented generally would benefit the economy as well. Existing management that emphasizes extrinsic rewards is bad for creativity and productivity, as Pink argues.
External motivation creates massively unequal pay scales between the highest-paid executives and salesmen and the lowest-paid administrative and service workers. If intrinsic motivation was taken very seriously, there would be no rational justification to pay CEO’s thousands of times more than janitors and customer service workers. Indeed, more and more CEO’s, lawyers, and high-powered executives are quitting their financially lucrative jobs to find or create more meaningful and personally satisfying work (Jonathan Fields and Pam Slim are two great examples).
Taking intrinsic motivation seriously, it would be more rational to have salary caps and could lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth between rich and poor—or at least between rich and middle-class.
On the other hand, since it is unproductive to motivate knowledge workers with financial rewards, owners and shareholders of companies might exert pressure to pay employees less and profit off of them more. Even though technically this is irrational behavior according to the intrinsic motivation theory, the structures of publicly traded corporations that require maximizing quarterly returns are not likely to change overnight. Companies will still legally be required to maximize profit, and paying employees less is an immediate boost to profit margins. In addition, people in power have throughout history acted irrationally to maintain their own selfish interests.
Seen in this light, 20% time could be a way for management to be not less but more authoritarian, managing not just external actions but internal feelings too, for the benefit of an elite minority. Getting slaves to love their slavery is the ultimate act of coercion. This would prevent any meaningful political changes. It is already difficult enough to organize a populace saturated in spectacle and infinite consumer distractions.
ROWE could create hypercompetition for low-paid but meaningful jobs, as currently is the case in the non-profit sector. ROWE could also exacerbate the ageist trend of firing higher-paid, older employees in exchange for young, results-producing and meaning-driven Gen Y workers.
If implemented by itself, ROWE might transfer business risk from owners to employees, like partners of a firm without any stock. Those who do not get results will get fired, even if they put in far longer hours but just had bad luck with their particular solution, or suffer from a medical condition like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In countries like the United States that have little-to-no social net, this could create massive anxiety for individual employees, thus making work much more unpleasant. It could be potentially disasterous to get fired in a society with little social net where nearly all companies have ROWE, for companies would engage in even more fierce competition for the most productive employees, creating a kind of Social Darwinism.
Meeting all one’s needs in one workplace could create a corporate cult. Google’s campus has a cafeteria, gym, and even a Buddhist-inspired personal development center. Getting fired or laid off would be as devastating for the individual as being excommunicated from the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, losing all of one’s income, meals, friends, social network, meaningful activities, gym membership, and religious services all at once.
Hypercompetition of ROWE could encourage cheating and cutting corners not just by corporations, but also by individuals within corporations. On the other hand, lots of employees cut corners as it is. But with potentially less oversight by management, with fewer policies and procedures, what would stop someone from doing the minimum amount of work on a project? Or to put it another way, what kind of results will we value—short-term or long-term? High quality or low quality? Tim Ferris, ROWE supporter and author of the 4-Hour Workweek, is famous for cheating at martial arts. Is this the kind of result we want to encourage in business?
Some tasks and projects and even job roles are things that nobody in any society enjoys doing. I often wonder if very few job roles exist that are inherently meaningful and deeply fulfilling. Most people seeking meaningful work end up as some kind of Life Coach or Marketing Consultant. Working one-on-one with intelligent and creative people to help solve their problems and seeing results is much more meaningful for most people than working on problems that might never be solved, that deal in complete abstractions, that involve repetitive and monotonous tasks, or that require grueling physical labor.
There will still be need for manufacturing work and physical labor (unless we start mass-producing robots!), which is still best under the traditional management of external rewards. Increasing the meaningfulness of white-collar jobs may create an even larger wage and even meaning gap between white-collar and blue-collar jobs.
Accounting for the Social Costs of Intrinsic Motivation
Many of these potential costs of motivating employees with intrinsic motivation must be dealt with at a collective level, not simply by corporations or individuals. Here are some of my ideas as to potential solutions that could integrate such things as ROWE and 20% time while accounting for their potential problems.
Change the structure of publicly-traded corporations to eliminate the legal requirement for maximizing quarterly profits. This is of course a massive change but would be necessary to prevent against abuses of employees by owners. Whether or not we implement intrinsic motivation structures within business, I think this is an important step towards creating a more just and sustainable world.
Create a very solid social net. To prevent anxiety from hyper-competitiveness and to ensure basic needs of individuals are met, we need to ensure that sick and unemployed people are taken care of. If we can implement one radical idea like 20% time or ROWE, then we can implement other radical ideas like universal health care (hardly radical of an idea in most developed nations) and even guaranteed minimum income. These programs are best if publicly funded to prevent cannibalization from corporate entities. This extends the idea of “paying people adequately and fairly, then giving people lots of autonomy” to beyond a single workplace to society generally. Providing a guaranteed minimum income could create conditions for massive innovation and entrepreneurship.
Implement intrinsic motivation fully throughout society, from top to bottom—globally. This would result in a radical leveling of income from rich to middle class (the poor will likely still be involved in low-paid manufacturing, physical labor, and service jobs, which perhaps can be subsidized and given more external motivation with the excess revenue from capping salaries). Cap executive and management salaries across the board for all companies to some reasonable amount like $100k. This would make salaries consistent with both intrinsic motivation research as well as positive psychology research that shows diminishing returns for personal wealth above subsistence levels. While this may seem like a radical notion, reducing the income gap in this way would be the most rational course of action for our economy based on current psychological science. Our existing paradigm of economics is lagging far behind our understandings of what makes people happy and productive (unless there is other contradictory research I am not aware of). By reducing the wage gap, we will free up billions of dollars for paying employees living wages in developing nations.
It may even be more rational to pay employees much more for those meaningless jobs that require compliance and straightforwardness, since these jobs are the only ones apparently more productive with the use of extrinsic motivation. In a meaning-based economy, the meaningless jobs are the ones that are rational to reward financially. This of course contradicts the “do what you love and get paid oodles of $$$ for it” philosophy of most Life and Marketing Coaches, which is irrational based on the psychological research Dan Pink has presented.
Revive local communities and the public sphere. To avoid the corporate cult that enslaves employees by controlling their social and religious lives, we need non-commercial local communities that are rich with social connections and meaningful activities once again. Online communities play some role in an individual’s life, but nothing like flesh-and-blood social networks that used to bond individuals for life. Since many jobs will probably always lack intrinsic meaningfulness, community is a strong requirement for finding that connection and sense of purpose. Positive psychology research has also shown that meaningful work is far less important to living a meaningful and happy life than we often think, while intimate relationships and community make a much bigger difference. Perhaps if we implemented lower salaries, we could have much higher taxes on corporations, making available large funds for public works and common spaces for community to form once again.
Changing these structures would require mass political and social action, as well as an enormous shift in how we think about motivation. In fact, these changes would take no less than a revolution, since they would massively overthrow existing power elites and radically restructure society and economics. Whether you agree with my conclusions or not, the implications of research on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation certainly have very significant implications for society and culture.
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Tags: 20% time, 4-Hour Workweek, 4HWW, culture, Dan Pink, economics, Gmail, Google, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, motivation, politics, results-only work environment, ROWE, self-actualization, society, twenty percent time