Last weekend, I took my 2 year old son to the zoo. It was great fun watching him look in amazement at all the animals. The zoo also had a number of animal shows, where animals do some funny things to make sure the visitors are enthralled. And every time, an animal did something (like an elephant throwing a massive log into the pond), it was rewarded with some food (an apple, banana or some nuts). These animals have been conditioned using a carrots and sticks approach. I am pretty sure the animals don’t particularly enjoy doing the stunts, but they put up a show anyway for the reward.
Isn’t that something that we try in our organizations too all the time? We provide tasks for our people and offer a reward if they do it. And whether or not people enjoy performing the task becomes a secondary issue. Is this the best way to get things done? And not just work, but is this the right way to build sustainable performance – performance that brings joy to employees, is repeatable and improves over time?
As Dan Pink mentioned in his famous TED Talk, rewards or incentives work well for work that is rudimentary or routine in nature. He cites research that states that extrinsic rewards don’t work very well for complex tasks. What really works is providing autonomy to employees, helping them develop mastery in their work and giving them a higher order purpose. Frederick Herzberg too laid this bare years ago with his research (a must-read piece). His research identified a series of issues which acted as motivators and hygiene factors in companies.
From the chart above, we see that rewards is considered as a hygiene factor, because it is not a big contributor to extreme job satisfaction. In less than 10% of the cases, it contributed to high levels of satisfaction. And in about 10% of the cases, dissatisfaction with rewards led to high job satisfaction.
What really contributed to job satisfaction are things like achievement, recognition, nature of work responsibility and advancement. As HR leaders, we need to think how much time are we devoting to getting the hygiene factors right versus the time spent on building truly motivating factors.
I am not trying to over-simplify. I know we have pressing business needs, varying market realities and different workforce segments. But, we need to probably re-look at what really motivates and retain our employees. Maybe, it’s time to stop over-relying (and blaming) the animal-training approach. We are humans after all!