When Getting Paid Makes You Worse at Things

We’re always looking for our dream job and whatever that consists of – money, power, pleasure or any other motivator. For lots of us, it’s trying to make enough money doing whatever we enjoy most in the world. Research into motivation, however, suggests this might be even more difficult than it sounds.

For many centuries, science (at least Western Science) only recognised two forms of motivation: biological (i.e. the need to drink, eat and reproduce) and external motivation (i.e. the rewards and punishments delivered by the environment you find yourself in). Logically that felt sensible and, as a paradigm, could be used to explain the vast majority of behaviour.

The arts, as is often the case, were ahead of the game. In 1876, Mark Twain wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, in which Tom tricks his friend into doing a task he finds particularly dull (whitewashing a large fence) by suggesting that it is actually the most exciting thing anyone could possibly do. Following on from this, Twain wrote “that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”. Further, Twain observed that the wealthy choose to do things for fun (e.g. driving horse-drawn passenger coaches) that others are paid for, “but if they recite-1l8kw8lwere offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign”. Daniel Pink – whose book “Drive” I would highly recommend and inspired various parts of this post – even decided to name this change in motivation in response to whether something is mentally classified as work or play the “Sawyer Effect”.

Twain had noticed something that it took science a fair few more decades to realise – there was a third form of motivation. There is an intrinsic pleasure in doing certain tasks, which can’t be explained by either biological need or external stimuli (although it can be influenced by someone convincing you that a task is really exciting!). In fact, I was prompted to write this post because it is that intrinsic motivation that makes me write; I enjoy the process of writing and I find it a rewarding experience in itself.

Firstly I’ll have a look at some of the science behind this form of motivation, before offering a few practical tips on how we can cultivate this motivation in the workplace.

The Science 

Anyway, when science got round to catching up, it did so by chance – another repeating trend. In 1949, Harry Harlow (alongside Margaret Harlow and Donald Meyer) was studying how different organisms learn, on this occasion by studying rhesus monkeys (before launching into his accidental discovery, it’s worth noting that Harlow did make huge progress in the studies of affection and learning). These monkeys were to solve a simple mechanical monkey-166942_1280problem and, in order to get the  monkeys comfortable with the equipment, the puzzle was placed in their cages. To the surprise of the experimenters, the monkeys immediately focused on solving the puzzle. They seemed to be showing both determination and joy. By the time the experimenters wanted to test them, they were already highly capable of solving the problem, due to their unexpected practice habits. These monkeys had not been shown how to solve the puzzle, they’d not been encouraged to do so, they’d received no reward and yet they still did it. It was in response to this that Harlow raised this intrinsic form of motivation – the “performance of the task provided intrinsic reward”.

Harlow wanted to test how strong this motivation was – could it beat out one of the two conventional motivations? He ran the same experiment again, using the same test, but providing a food reward to the trial monkeys. To his surprise the monkeys with a food reward performed worse than those without – they made more mistakes and were slower. The introduction of a reward actually reduced performance, a potentially revolutionary finding. But it was a bit too anti-establishment and no progress was made for another 20 years, when a scientist called Edward Deci decided to push at the boundaries of motivation again – this time with humans.

Intrinsic Motivation in Humans?

Deci wanted to test whether paying someone to perform a task made it intrinsically less interesting. To do this he used a Soma cube – a set of pieces that can be arranged into different shapes – and a group of university students, who he divided into two. All the students were presented with three drawings of Soma configurations and were asked to assemble them. When they had configured two, Deci left the room to, allegedly, get a fourth drawing. In reality, this was the key stage; he wanted to know what they students did when he left the room. Would they keep playing with the cube or would they do something else (various papers and magazines were left around as possible distractions)? Both groups of students had to do this every day for three days.

A Soma cube sofa
A Soma cube sofa

The difference between the two groups of students was that one would never be paid based on their performance – they received no performance related pay on any of the three days – while the other received no payment on day 1, did receive payment on day 2 and were then told that the money had run out and they would not be paid on day 3.

During the period Deci was out the room (8 minutes), the unpaid group played with the Soma cube for about 4 minutes each of the three days. The other group spent about 4 minutes on the Soma cube on Day 1, behaving similarly to the unpaid group. On Day 2 (when they were paid) they got, understandably, a lot more interested in the cube and played with the puzzle for over 5 minutes – they were trying to get a head start on the third and fourth puzzles. This was as you’d expect. The big test, however, was day 3. This group, not paid for day 3, became disinterested in the cube, only playing with it for less than 3 minutes – less than when they were paid, but also substantially less than the group who’d been unpaid all three days.

The payment of money had reduced the intrinsic interest in solving the puzzle. It delivered short term motivation and enhanced focus on Day 2, but reduced interest in it afterwards. Money was like having a sugar boost; it made things better for a while, but worse afterwards.

What can we do?

Alongside other research (such as Glucksberg, 1962 and 1964 – which showed that offering rewards reduces creativity, as people narrow their focus and reduce their ability to think laterally), this suggests that the typical offering of most employers – if you do this, then you’ll get paid that – isn’t the best, or most consistent, form of motivation (particularly as you have to keep handing over more and more money).  It is, however, the easiest and most visible form of reward, so organisations have stuck with this.

There are other options though. Given that we now know that making a task into ‘work’ both reduced productivity and creativity, we need to find ways to either make tasks less work-like or specify less of the tasks that have to be completed at work.

Let People Do More of What They Want

Google’s famous 20% time – where it allows its employees to use 20% of their time on their own projects – makes sense when combined with our learning above. Valve, the game developer, might well argue that 100% of employee time is spent on work that has some intrinsic motivation; it, theoretically at least, has a flat structure where people are free to work on whatever they want (the idea being that the best ideas draw the most people together).

By giving people this freedom you’re allowing them to spend time on what intrinsically motivates them, so they can deliver more productively and creatively. Now 20% may well be too much – it might not be industry appropriate or it might be too big a first step – but trying out a smaller percentage makes sense. It’s also worth testing, so run a trial. You don’t have to commit forever.  Finding a way to give employees time to work on things that both help the organisation and are their own choice is a real win-win.

Give People Purpose, Not Tasks

General George Patton, a US Commander during the Second World War, said of his experiences “never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surecite-eu71trprise you with their ingenuity”. By giving people direction, but not specifics for how to do their work, you can prevent tasks becoming ‘work’. This also lets people play to their strengths and bring in other people to help them reach their goal. This additional freedom, or even sense of freedom, helps maintain stable intrinsic motivation.  Further, it means people have a clearer understanding of why they’re doing their work – and we’re predisposed to wanting to know “why?”.

Create Diverse Teams

By creating teams with a wide range of skills and experiences, you generate an environment where interaction is encouraged (primarily because it’s the only way not to get left behind). This means people are often brought into the work of others, so everyone spends time working on topics outside their normal remit. This serves two purposes: you develop a greater sense of buy-in to the team’s purpose, enabling more understanding of, and motivation towards, that goal; and employees get to use previous experiences to solve current “non-work” (for them) problems. Together this means people are more likely to maintain their intrinsic motivation at work, amongst many other non-motivation related benefits.

Create a Peer-to-Peer Benefit System

As we read earlier, tasks become work when you’re rewarded for doing them. For humans in an organisational environment it’s a bit more complicated – it depends where the reward is coming from. It also depends on why you feel you’re being rewarded. If your boss gives you a pay rise because you met all the targets you were set, the tasks you were doing were most likely ‘work’. If yhandshake-442908_1280our peer gives you a bonus because they were really impressed with something you did, then that’s very different – you feel like you’re being recognised for your own skills, abilities and personality rather than doing specific tasks. By creating a peer-to-peer system, you remove the hierarchicaoval of intrinsic motivation.

Involve People in Goal Setting

If you can involve people in setting their own goals, while keeping them ambitious and aligned with the organisation’s objectives, then you’ll be able to internalise the goal. By changing targets from something that is thrust upon employees to something that they have had a role in deciding, you make that objective meaningful to the individual – they were involved so must think it is a ‘good’ thing (and due to cognitive dissonance, if they believe that they were involved, they will come to think that the target is worthwhile, even if it isn’t what they would have chosen beforehand). This can make financial and intrinsic motivation align, leading to great performance.

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4 thoughts on “When Getting Paid Makes You Worse at Things

  1. garcinia cambosia May 30, 2015 / 12:49 pm

    An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a friend who has been conducting a little research on this.

    And he actually ordered me lunch because I found it for him…
    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanks for spending some time to discuss this topic here
    on your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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