Monday, November 15, 2010


I know it’s a bit of a charged title, especially in South Africa. My vague belief in the mystical powers of Karma restrains me from wishing the most horrific of tragedies on anyone who puts an ethnic connotation to it. For the title is informed by the largest part of the human condition throughout the world.

clip_image002Monkeys, you see, can be taught to do just about any task. They do so willingly when rewarded with peanuts and get better at it and do it more often the more peanuts they get. Sound familiar? It should, because that is how we have set up most of our working environment. The more I pay you, the more I can expect from you. I sometimes wonder whether it does not start with parents paying their children incentives to get some odd jobs done around the home. I am reminded of a news photograph of the recent strikes which showed a striker holding a placard proclaiming “pay peanuts and get monkeys”. Only, this striker had the placard upside down. Perhaps he was not lamenting the peanuts, just the amount of them; because the analogy is apt, whether payment is in peanuts or money.

Yes, this is going to be one of those many articles on money as a motivator. Motivation must be one of the most written about subjects of all, certainly in organisational theory. If you want to make a lot of money by just talking, get onto the “motivational speaker” circuit. All you need are some marginal speaking skills, a lot of rehearsed quotes, or to have made your name in one or other field, including acting, sports or sometimes even crime. Yet, one of the world’s great motivational gurus, Peter Drucker, once remarked: “We know nothing about motivation. All we can do is write books about it.”

So I am wondering if money is the great motivator, why the mystery? Why all these books, videos, talks, and multi-media paraphernalia if the answer is so simple – just give more peanuts. Because we know it is not. And the only people who don’t seem to get it are those in business who structure the employee environment. It’s mostly based on monetary incentives, from the top to the bottom.

“Why do you work?” I would routinely ask one of the more petulant participants in my workshops.

“For money,” would be the response.

I would then ask if they would be motivated more if I increased their pay by say 5-fold. Without thinking most would say “yes”. I would then sketch a scenario in which I would increase their pay 5-fold, while at the same time removing from them the burden to work at all. They would have to sit in an office and do absolutely nothing for 8 hours a day. After a joke or two about “so what’s different”, the respondents would quickly realise that the state would be totally intolerable for more than a week or so.

I know it was not a very scientific process, although I repeated it hundreds of times with the same effect. Maslow, it is said, structured his Hierarchy of needs on the basis of an interaction with a handful of college students. The point of my exercise was to show simply the disconnect between purpose and pay; between meaning and means.

No study or authoritative work will deny the importance of pay. Its importance is not as a motivator, but as a potential de-motivator. When people feel they are not being paid fairly, they will be de-motivated. Herein lies a huge problem. The perception of fairness, particularly in South Africa, is based on runaway unrealistic expectations, comparisons and huge pay discrepancies. To add incentives into this mix compounds the problem. A powerful counter to expectations is involvement through a fortune sharing system, rather than monetary incentives based on tasks and measurements.

clip_image004In refraining from referencing a huge volume of work from scripture and popular guru’s to the testimonies of ex-junkies, I’m going to refer to some recent work which was brought to my attention by colleague Mandy de Waal. The research was done by M.I.T. first in a student environment and then replicated in rural India with the same results. Popular motivational writer Dan Pink presented these results to the RSA and anyone remotely interested in motivating themselves and others is urged to follow this link.

This study confirms that money incentives work well as long as it involves only mechanical skills. Just like monkeys! But the moment the task calls for even rudimentary cognitive skills not only do incentives not work, but the larger the incentive the poorer the performance. Now there’s a thing - we pay more to get less! It’s an interesting take on executive bonuses.

What really motivates the thinking human being, Pink says, is:

autonomy or being self directed;

mastery or the capacity to get better at the task

and -my absolute favourite- a transcendent purpose or making a contribution.

It is easy to achieve these conditions, even only partly, at any level of task. A NASA sweeper can move from “pushing the broom for the boss” (mechanical) to “making the floor come clean” (autonomy and mastery) to “helping to put a man into space” (transcendent purpose.)

Pink concludes: “When the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen.”

Yet that is how many have structured their business world. They simply cannot get away from the profit purpose of business. So at the very top they have the corporate board of gorillas – fixated by money and measurements. They pass these goals on to the executive orangutans who receive tons of peanuts for achieving them…sometimes not even that. Next in line are the chimpanzees that get bucketfuls for getting the unruly monkeys below them to meet their given targets.

Truly a planet of apes!

In technology and knowledge humankind has made extraordinary leaps on the evolutionary chart. But in thinking and behaviour we are often not much further than that creature second from the left…perhaps only a bit more devious.

It only takes a different way of thinking to change it.

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