Book review: Why motivation is not quite as simple as carrots and sticks

What separates those of us who keep our resolutions from those who don't?

So it’s out with the old and in with the new: a new year, a new decade, and maybe a new you. Maybe you’re thinking that it’s time for a new challenge in your life. When the holidays ended, you didn’t want to come back to your boring job, your tedious co-workers, your overbearing boss. You’re looking for a work experience more satisfying than the one currently sucking the life out of you every weekday. Heck, maybe it’s finally time to follow your dream and start your own business, or travel the world, or become a pastry chef-if you could only get motivated to do it.

Daniel Pink, a contributing editor at Wired and author of the blockbuster A Whole New Mind, has made human motivation the subject of his new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. As Pink sees it, the business world’s current management practices and workplace strictures are out of touch with what science has come to understand about the way we function, and he contends that we have evolved socially to the point that we need a full-scale upgrade of our contemporary business “operating system.”

If 50,000 years ago the human race was motivated by simple survival, the emergence of more complex societies have bred a drive within human beings to, broadly speaking, seek reward and avoid punishment. The carrot-and-stick principles of “scientific management” that American engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor advanced in the early 20th century were born of this premise, and they’ve underpinned our outlook on how we live our lives and construct our organizations: reward good behaviour and achievement, punish misconduct and underperformance. Even the development of the field of humanistic psychology in the 1950s, which questioned the simplicity of that reward and punishment dichotomy, didn’t do much to dislodge these ideas.

When Pink surveys his surroundings, however, he sees a system that’s incompatible with the way we now organize, think, and work in the developed world. It clashes with emerging structural concepts like open-source or results-only work environments, and with the fact that, as Pink writes, “for a surprisingly large number of people, jobs have become more complex, more interesting, and more self-directed.” Whereas a century ago, most jobs were simple and repetitive – “algorithmic” – those routine blue- and white-collar jobs are now being outsourced to the developing world, or made redundant by technology. Many of the jobs that remain, or that are replacing those outsourced jobs, are “heuristic” in nature, requiring the worker “to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution.” And as science is discovering, that old approach of extrinsic motivators, carrots and sticks, can actually impede our heuristic, right-brain pursuits.

Drive presents a body of behavioural economic research suggesting that “rewards can perform a weird sort of behavioral alchemy: They can transform an interesting task into a drudge.” The data show that if you try to get your child to learn math by paying them for successfully completing exercises, any short-term successes will likely be balanced by her losing interest in math in the long term. Offer your workers a pay-for-performance plan, and you may find that it actually has a negative impact on their productivity. What’s needed instead, Pink argues, is a better understanding of intrinsic motivation and how to cultivate what he dubs “Type I behaviour,” where what drives a person to complete a project is “the freedom, challenge, and purpose of the undertaking itself; any other gains are … a bonus.”

Of course, understanding motivation intellectually is one thing, but finding the gumption to strike out on your own, whether starting your own business or switching careers, is quite another. In this regard, your first pep talk of the year comes from Canadian business coach, corporate speaker, and former journalist Gene C. Hayden. She doesn’t want you to be satisfied with your mediocre lot: “For the ambitious among us,” she writes, ” fine is a four-letter word.”

Hayden’s specialty is helping people determine whether their big idea – the new business, chef’s school – is truly going to engender the “Type I behaviour” Pink describes, and then helping them find the resources within themselves to make it happen. In her new book, The Follow-Through Factor: Getting From Doubt to Done, offered as a manual for realizing your ambitions, Hayden explores the difference between those of us who just think big and those of us who make things happen for ourselves.

Whichever idea it is that’s brewing in the back of your mind, you can no doubt find a dozen reasons not to pursue it. You don’t have the time, the energy, the money. You can’t find a mentor. You worry that you’ll just plain fail. If this sounds like your inner monologue, Hayden would like to direct your attention to something on the Internet called the Death Clock. Punch in a few details about yourself, and it’ll tell you how much longer you’re likely to live. As you watch the seconds start to tick down, she hopes you’ll realize that you shouldn’t delay the pursuit of your goal.

But while she offers an assortment of anecdotes, questionnaires and other exercises to get you micro-stepping closer to your objective, she doesn’t want you to jump in and order new business cards just yet. The first exercises in the book aim to have you assess your idea lucidly, and determine whether it really links to your interests and values. It’s fine to want out of the accounting department, but does that dream of becoming a pastry chef really sync with the things you’ve learned you enjoy doing in the workplace? If it doesn’t, you’ll succumb to the inner voice that says “yes, but” and asks, “what’s the point?” You won’t have the motivation to carry you through the rough patches on the path. “Those with the follow-through factor say there is only one point,” Hayden writes. “Personal interest.” So perhaps it’s time to think about what motivates you.

Executive summaries

The Male Factor: The Unwritten Rules, Misperceptions, and Secret Beliefs of Men in the Workplace
(Broadway Books)
Shaunti Feldman

The research that informed former Wall Street analyst Feldman’s man-decoding bestseller, For Women Only, is continued in this guide to helping women understand men in the workplace. The caricature of men’s simplistic approach to work and life is deeply entrenched, but Feldman – who interviewed 3,000 men for this book – thinks that’s a grave mistake. “Not taking into account the complexity and depth of men’s thinking can put women at a serious disadvantage” in the working world, she warns. “Inner truths about men might unwittingly trip women up without our ever realizing it.” So Feldman, for example, digs into the male tendency to separate their “business” and “personal” worlds – in part because of the way the male brain is structured – as distinct from the female tendency to see them as integrated. Elsewhere, Feldman explores the issue of emotion in the workplace. While most women won’t be surprised to learn that men consider heightened displays of emotion inappropriate, she doubts women understand exactly what men actually consider “getting emotional.” The men she interviews notice subtle shifts in women’s tone of voice, for example, that make them think their female co-workers are too quick to go on the defensive.

The Investor’s Manifesto: Preparing for Prosperity, Armageddon, and Everything In Between
(John Wiley & Sons)
William J. Bernstein

Former neurologist and self-styled grassroots investor William Bernstein claims to have sworn eight years ago that he would never write another investment guide, but he’s back on bookshelves because, as he sees it, the financial meltdown has created a uniquely “teachable moment” – not to mention a tremendous opportunity for the skilled. The principles of investment are simple, says Bernstein, so he takes a long view of the financial industry, dedicating half the book to investment history and theory (in a manner accessible to the math-challenged among us) in the hopes of giving his readers “the ability to coolly observe extraordinary current events and say ‘I’ve seen this movie before, and I know how it ends.'” The latter half of the book explores how to manage the investment industry to actually execute the investment strategies you devise (“always be wary of the investment industry,” Bernstein counsels) and, most importantly, how to manage yourself as an investor. Don’t be greedy, and most of all, don’t act reflexively. “Nothing is more likely to make you poor than your own emotions,” he cautions. “Nothing is more likely to save your finances than learning how to use cool, dispassionate reason to hold these emotions in check.”

Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed
(Random House)
Gregg Easterbrook

Easterbrook’s metaphor of choice to describe what’s happening in the global economy today suggests something “noisy, superfast, covering huge amounts of territory.” We’ve seen periodic booms before, here and there around the world, but nothing like the economic forces that allow a city like Shenzhen, China – which didn’t exist 30 years ago – to become the world’s fourth-largest port in practically no time. And what’s happening today is the baseline for what’s coming, says the Atlantic contributing editor. He plays tour guide through a series of cities and towns – Shenzhen; Yakutsk, Russia; Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin – that exemplify different facets of the global economy, and projects what’s likely to happen as it continues to grow and accelerate. But rather than passing judgment on whether globalization is a wonderful or a terrible thing, Easterbrook accepts it as a mixed bag, foreseeing “an endless tumult of improved living standards wrapped with ribbons of stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction. Even in the boom years – and a lot of boom years are coming – we’re going to feel unhappy about the economy. We’ll feel unhappy because nothing will seem permanent. And nothing will be.”