I’m NOT a Rat! Get With The Times

In 1931, while the great depression was taking hold throughout the world, Al Capone was put in prison, the Empire State Building was completed, and a relatively unknown psychologist named B.F. Skinner received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Over the next 30 years, Skinner, best known for his work with lab rats, would change the way businesses managed people for decades to come.

Central to Skinner’s theory of human behaviour was his belief that human free will was actually an illusion and that human behaviour could be explained as a series of learned reactions to environmental forces. His theory was brought to life through an invention commonly referred to as a “Skinner Box.” He would place a hungry rat in his Skinner Box which contained a lever that dispensed food pellets. When the rat accidentally knocked the lever and received a food pellet, it quickly learned to repeat the behaviour. Looking at behavioural management from the opposite angle, Skinner also subjected the rat to an electrical current that would stop when the rat knocked the lever. The central conclusion of his experiments is that rewarded behaviour will increase and punished behaviour will decrease.

So what did leaders of business and industry do when Skinner’s theory surfaced? Collectively they said, “Hey, this Skinner guy is on to something. If it works with rats, then obviously it must work with human behaviour. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for to get my factory workers to work faster.” And thus, pay schemes and performance management systems were invented – and it actually worked! Factory workers did, in fact, work faster and produce more. And the business community and society at large hasn’t looked back since. Skinner’s “carrot-and-stick” approach continues to underpin most of the motivational tools that the business community mistakes for good leadership practices.

Traditional Motivation

The science of human behaviour and the understanding of what actually motivates have both improved a lot since B.F. Skinner. Furthermore, the nature of twenty-first century work has changed substantially since the industrial revolution, and yet, for the most part, businesses continue to operate according to Skinner’s conclusions about human nature and about how to manipulate behaviour.

Business author Daniel Pink explains in a Ted Talk that the early notions about motivation, namely, that monetary rewards motivate, are applicable for tasks that involve mechanical skill only. He cites more recent studies on human motivation which have revealed that once a task calls for “even rudimentary cognitive skill, larger rewards led to poorer performance”.

WHAT! How can this be? This flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught about motivation! Pink explains that “Rewards by their very nature narrow our focus…. and restrict our possibility.” Rewards can work, but only in a very limited way. They work for tasks where the goal is very simple, for tasks that require little problem solving, and when the rewards are tied entirely to the result. If this sounds like a new idea, it’s not. This finding simply re-articulated what scientists have been saying for over 50 years.

This new understanding of motivation poses a big problem for most businesses today. Repetitive, unskilled work has either been automated or outsourced to less-developed nations. The needs and expectations of 21st century workers have changed substantially too. Somehow, the business world has yet to get that memo.  Business leaders have continued to pour resources into motivational techniques that are terribly outdated, demeaning, and often counterproductive.

Carrot Reward_2

While many of us function within this outdated model of human motivation, and some of us may even thrive in it, a large majority of workers surveyed over recent years are disengaged and drained of energy. They are disheartened by ‘modern’ management practices and not very excited about “knocking that lever” day-in and day-out. Why? Because we are not rats! We human beings have passions that we yearn to follow. We crave the liberty to decide for ourselves how to use our talents. And we aspire to contribute to a cause that will do more good for the world than just simply pay our bills. That is truly what motivates people – freedom to make our own decisions, doing work that we enjoy, and the aspiration to contribute to something meaningful – not pay schemes and performance management systems.

Most organizations are not designed to lead workers, they are designed to control them. This is not because organizations are inherently evil, but because there is a prevailing attitude among modern managers that all that ‘leadership stuff’ is soft, subjective, costly, and simply a ‘touchy-feely’ hand-holding exercise. On the other hand, to control people with money, they reason, is so much more comprehensible. It’s objective. And on the surface, it seems efficient, even scientific. But that line of thinking goes out the window when one considers the mountains of recent scientific studies that show how much money, innovation, productivity and customer satisfaction is lost by the chronically low worker engagement throughout the world.

Thoughtful business leaders must re-evaluate their basic beliefs about what actually motivates people if they have any hope of convincing their people to willingly follow them. They are also going to have to embrace a whole new toolset that favors

  • autonomy over control,
  • purpose over a singular focus on profit, and
  • playing to people’s strengths rather than beating them up for their weaknesses.

Put another way, this is going to require a fundamental shift on the priority that businesses place on leadership development – and it’s about 50 years overdue.


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