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Archive for April, 2010

Photo Credit: kevindooley / Kevin Dooley

A startling discovery was made around the 70’s in psychological research about motivation: money doesn’t cut it. In fact, giving a small monetary reward for completing a task resulted in decrease of intrinsic motivation. Also, what seems to be more important than reward is how the person perceives meaning in the task: if a task is truly intrinsically motivating, by for example producing information about the performer himself, then extrinsic rewards such as money have little effect on subsequent motivation. It seems then, that money as a reward can meaningless or even detrimental for motivation. More recent studies have found the same with some specification.

An intricate psychological event like motivation can of course not be simplified to only an interaction between reward and choice, but research such as the ones cited above do highlight a quite obvious thing that is still, for indeterminate reasons, not completely understood in business: people need more than money to be motivated. More specifically, people need tasks that are personally meaningful.

This is a troublesome and quite inconvenient thought when building incentive systems or trying to lead people so as to increase motivation. Experience of personal meaning at work varies endlessly according to personal and quite immeasurable human logic, not to speak of feelings and emotions. There is no common algorithm available be applied to everyone because motivation is a sum of so many personal dimensions. There can be no common incentive system in the name of equality – it will fail to provide truly compelling incentive.

For corporate motivational or incentive systems to work they should be different for everyone and vary not only pay but also the content and structure of work. This is attainable in small organizations but gets too complicated in bigger ones where there is no sense in expecting leaders or corporate functions to be involved in such a level of detail.

So how can bigger companies support enduring motivation? The answer is that the company shouldn’t actually try to motivate the employees – they should provide support for employees to motivate themselves. People clearly are the best experts themselves when it comes to personal subjects such as motivation and happiness. Choosing the kinds of tasks, teams and environments that support personal motivation and wellbeing is best done by the person whose motivation and wellbeing are in question.

People are however not always fully aware of what they need in order to experience fulfilment. In fact, the bulk of career coaching centers around the question “what do I want?”. Building good self-awareness is a lifelong development process, but support is available in many forms – e.g. coaching and psychological measures can provide a wealth of tools for people to think about their happiness and increase the freedom to have an impact on personal motivation.

Thinking about motivation like this is a definite challenge for management because what is literally needed is less management. Adding freedom of choice about task content, composition of work teams as well as work environments is the only way to support people in building sustainable personal motivation. This requires that companies don’t see people and their knowhow as something they own and must “milk” but as a developing, self-organizing intelligence that is temporarily leant to the organization to achieve a specific goal. If a company is afraid of losing knowledge and strives to incorporate and detain it in itself, it will result in structures that decrease motivation and obstruct development of information. Giving more power to employees, acknowledging the importance of personal factors, sense of meaning and self awareness in motivation will result in more power in thought and action, and since money is a necessity, ultimately be a more cost-effective incentive system.

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Photo credit: Nrbelex / Brett Weinstein

Computer-based information systems are an analogy of the dynamics of the mind and human information processing, just as the steam engine was in its time. However, the human mind is never as direct in its logic and decision-making as information systems seem to be. In fact, human decision-making is full of irrationality and prejudice and is often based on the use of simplification and heuristics. It is the only way that people can cope and balance between the mass of information that comes from the environment and the mass of internal information and activity.

Corners are cut in reasoning especially when complex mind structures attempt to make sense out of other complex mind structures. People tend to group and judge others based on single experiences and make decisions in relationships according to obscure feelings and irrational logic. Situations that are especially full of questionable logic and reasoning are ones where people are required to evaluate each other. Most are familiar with development discussions and job interviews. It has been shown that without specific advice on what to evaluate, the assessment that people make of each other and themselves are influenced by e.g. gender and acquaintanceship or even height. In competitive situations at work, our evolutionary base and survival instincts take control and bias our evaluations in favor of the opposite sex.

The only way to keep objective in situations where people evaluate others is to tie the assessment to some objective measure that directs thought and eliminates the influence of irrelevant factors. Another way to increase objectivity is to develop self awareness so that personal bias can be recognized and questioned or to use experts that have more awareness and objectivity.

One method of the mind that permits function with the amount of information available is creating categories, hierarchies and relationships. Within large groups of people such as companies and other organizations, people are bound to try and organize information about others through perceiving hierarchy. Some people in leading positions would rather not be perceived through power structures but as equal coworkers with only somewhat different responsibilities. However, due to the weight of past experiences and management practices originating from industrial times as well as the nature of human thought processes, equality is just an illusion in most typical organizations.

Perception of authority and leadership can also produce feelings of security. Leaders are expected to take final responsibility which diminishes pressure from others. It is also simpler to think of business occurrences as the result of only one man’s decisions instead of complicated interaction between all the employees involved, global economic customer needs and pure chance.

Perceiving work through task content and not outer structure such as work roles or positions in corporate hierarchy will in itself be a huge challenge for information processing. Luckily, the cognitive burden of this change will be divided among individuals.  Because leaders will no longer have to manage the metacognitive elements of work, they can freely concentrate more on the information content and the potential of people doing it. Also, as work is identified with task content and the people that work on tasks, the bias that people have of attributing the company’s success or failure to single people will diminish.

As business becomes more knowledge intensive, human centered and less computational, there are specific laws that come to effect. Specifically, obscure human reasoning and creative thinking, which cannot be reliably modeled or predicted, will have to be somehow managed and fostered to reach company goals. This requires that leadership incorporate an understanding of human reasoning and offer structure and specific tools to overcome prejudice and oversimplification that are innate to everyone. In addition, tools to assess and support personal development and potential can no longer be viewed as a service for only the few but as essential part of every employee’s work.

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Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt

Growing information intensity in business requires a new way of thinking about work and managing it. When tasks contents define work instead of job roles and processes, new types of possibilities for personal and economic development and happiness are revealed.

In Finland more people retire because of health reasons than of age every year. The leading cause for disability retirement is chronic musculoskeletal pain and after that mental illness, mostly depression. With big age groups about to retire, we will soon lack important human resources in many fields of business.

One way to respond to the growing need of human resources is to try to attract migrant workers. Another way is to just make people work longer by not allowing pension before a certain age. However, work can in itself incorporate things that hinder personal wellbeing and produce disability. Lack of control, misfit between work tasks and personal goals as well as discordance between personal values and the values of others in the work environment can create a continuum of stress, burnout and depression. How can we keep people in job roles if they do not have personal interest to stay there or if work is making them sick? And how can burnt-out people working in over-defined roles and work processes produce creative solutions, new ideas and stay productive in the midst of ever increasing demands?

Work can find the best possible, motivated, self-realizing doer when people themselves choose to do the kinds of tasks they are interested in. When people only do things that feel meaningful, only functions that seem good from the human perspective will prevail in companies. It seems like a hippie statement to say that freedom of choice and personal happiness of employees is important for the success of companies. Wellbeing and fulfillment are hard to price. However if a company wishes to produce innovation and do things increasingly better, it is essential that the brain power behind the company’s services is at its best.

Happiness at work requires recognition of personal goals and the capacity to realize them at least to some degree through work. This seems simple, but requires a lot from the individual because the self is a hard thing to observe. Luckily, psychology has produced loads of conceptualizations of different aspects of the self, techniques that increase perceptive ability, self knowledge and ways to measure and quantify sides of the personality and bring them into consciousness and discussion. An important quality in a successful knowledge worker is being self aware and using any way available to deepen awareness.

In addition to personal awareness, happiness requires the freedom to choose. Defining work through task content and not work roles, work places and working hours liberates the employees as well as the company into creating meaningful cooperation that always produces something valuable. Tasks can be as small as the human intelligence tasks that can be resourced through crowdsourcing or bigger entities of complex action organized around specific goals. Work could even be organized in an ad hoc fashion to serve specific transient or more permanent customer needs and allowed to take its form according to the best solution that people come up with as the needs arise.

The constitution of work defined through task contents can easily be altered to suit very different cognitive settings and life situations. People whose capacity to work is temporarily compromised due to sickness or other reasons or who just wish to do other stuff instead can alter their work load easily. Truly embracing task-based work independent of time and place will free people to do the kind of work when and where they want and most importantly, with the people that best support their development and wellbeing.

All in all work defined by tasks could at its best be meaningful interaction that increases knowhow and self-knowledge, that helps fulfill values, life goals and that molds itself according to changing life situations and personal development. Who wouldn’t want to experience that for as long as they can?


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