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Motivations for working go far beyond money

Sonja Nelson, Contributing Writer
December 1, 2012 • 638 views

For college students, extra cash can be hard to come by. While the Freshman 15 might add on a couple of extra pounds of body weight, the weight of our wallets drops frighteningly close to zero. Cash is a rare commodity, and few wouldn’t be tempted by a job that begins to refill our empty wallets upon graduation.

Thus, it’s surprising to hear that in the real world, the promise of a bundle of cash might not do anything to improve our work – in fact, it might even make us worse.

A 10-minute, animated YouTube video, “Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” claims just that. Don’t waste your money handing out excessive bonuses or raising salaries when that’s not going to make any difference in innovation.

According to studies cited in the video, money won’t improve performance in anything involving any level of cognitive skill. Material motivators seem wasteful when compared to three more surprising, less greed-inducing motivators: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Even in the realm of giant American corporations, these simple propensities continue to play a crucial role – such basic motivators could be more effective incentives than the money we so worship.

This is not to say that money is completely useless as a motivator. Money is a motivator; there is no doubt. Money’s most effective use, however, “is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table,” according to “Drive.” More money in the form of bonuses or even higher salaries loses all effect; at this high salary level, innovation can be spurred without a severe dent in the company’s bank account.

The geniuses changing our world and developing new, unprecedented ideas don’t do so just for the money. The perks of being a billionaire don’t instigate innovation alone – there needs to be some kind of purpose backing it up. Take the late Steve Jobs, for example. While he would qualify as rich by anyone’s standards, the video quotes that he just wanted to “put a ding in the universe,” a thought paralleled by the creative geniuses behind other companies, such as Skype. We are “purpose maximizers” as much as we are “profit maximizers.”  We want to make a difference.

Autonomy, too, can outrun money as a motivator. Autonomy, defined in the clip as simply “our desire to be self directed,” will lead to engagement, which will lead to new innovation. Flying in the face of the traditional structure of management, “self-direction is better” in that it will lead to more innovation. This is proved through the unorthodox methods of an Australian software company, Atlassian, which allows for 24 hours of complete independence per quarter that results in new ideas that would not have otherwise arisen, according to the video.

And then there is our fundamental “urge to get better at stuff”: mastery. Why do you do it? Just because, I want to get better, for fun – it’s hard to give reason; we just like to master what we do. So get out of the way and let people do their thing – they’ll get it done on their own, provided it’s something they care about.

Bring autonomy, mastery and purpose into the workplace, and you’re golden. Purpose offers incentive, autonomy offers engagement and mastery offers commitment. That’s all you need.

We like money – who doesn’t?  But we can restore a little bit of our faith in humanity when we acknowledge that most of us don’t work for money alone.  There is nothing wrong with trying to plump up our wallets a tad, but thankfully, that’s not all we’re running on.  So relax, we’re not necessarily all a bunch of greedy American sellouts. We’re better than that.

 

Sonja Nelson ’16 (nelsons@stolaf.edu) is from Minnetonka, Minn. She majors in English and studio art.

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