The Science Behind Motivating Employees

Research from the past 50 years reveals that organizations rely on employee rewards that do not motivate people for long. This is according to best-selling author and TED talk favorite, Daniel Pink, who shared his thoughts during the virtual broadcast of SuccessConnect with Meg Bear, senior vice president of Product Engineering and Operations for SAP SuccessFactors.

“Organizations use all kinds of different rewards, but the mainstay motivator is what I call, ‘If you do this, then you get that,’” Pink said. “These are very effective for simple tasks with short time frames because humans love rewards. What’s happening now, though, is that organizations use ‘if, then’ rewards for everything. For tasks that are more complex, creative, and conceptual with longer time horizons, we need a different motivational regime.”

Autonomy Is Motivational

While motivational studies reflected a fundamental mismatch between science and business, Bear noted how many leaders have realized the importance of the employee experience, particularly in moments that matter to each individual. Pink said that long-term employee motivation stemmed from offering people fair pay, along with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

“Autonomy is a really important point when comes to [employee] experiences,” Pink said. “The problem with ‘if, then’ rewards is the event – the contingency – because the contingency is a form of control. Humans have only two reactions to control: they comply or defy. Do you want people on your team who are purely compliant or defiant? Probably not. You want people who are fully engaged. The pathway to that is self-direction, meaning autonomy.”

Tap Full Brain Power with the Right Timing

On a more personal level, Pink provided his self-motivational tips for daily productivity, drawing from research he captured in his book about timing. He argued against using guesswork and intuition to structure daily work schedules. The best time to do something depends on what you are doing.

“We treat timing like an art, but it’s really a science,” he said. “Our brain power doesn’t remain constant over the course of the day. It changes in meaningful ways. For about 80 percent of us, we move through the day in three stages. There’s a peak early in the day, a trough in mid-day, and a recovery late afternoon. Do your analytic work during the peak, administrative work early to mid-afternoon, and iterative insight work late afternoon and evening.”

Skill Development for Future Workforce

As business and markets reel from unprecedented, rapid change, Pink acknowledged the challenges people face in reskilling for organizations of the future. Using the metaphor of left-brain versus right-brain thinking, he suggested a wholesale departure from traditionally celebrated skills.

“To survive today, people have to do work that’s hard to outsource and automate and delivers on the new demands of this particular moment in time,” he said. “Certain skills that used to get you into the middle class are necessary, but no longer sufficient. We need the left-brain spreadsheet skills, but the abilities that will determine who moves forward and behind are the things we haven’t taken seriously enough, like artistry, empathy, inventiveness, composition, and big-picture thinking.”

Cures for Meeting Fatigue

Pink had specific tips for staying productive despite the unrelenting pace of online meetings. He urged workers to override their “muscle memory” that called for meetings to get work done and replace it with a more measured approach.

“Think of a meeting as a bundle of tasks,” he said. “In some cases, we have overvalued what is synchronous, and undervalued what is asynchronous. If some tasks can be done asynchronously, let people do them asynchronously. It allows people greater autonomy and reduces the burden on that meeting.”

Bucking conventional wisdom, Pink touts the value of taking breaks. While we tend to think of breaks as deviation from performance, they are actually a critical performance enhancer. Research shows the best kinds of breaks involve moving around outdoors, preferably with other people – safely, these days – and fully detached from work. Leave the cell phone behind.

Do Less and Go for Small Wins

Somewhat counterintuitively, Pink suggested that people consider reducing their commitments, judiciously, so they can focus with greater purpose and achieve more.

“Doing less often means doing better,” he said. “Every day when I come in, on my list of things to do, I always have my most important task. I do that first. It’s a way to be purposeful and have a strong priority.”

Looking ahead to the future of work, Pink encouraged leaders to think like scientists, come up with various hypotheses, and test them in small experiments.

“If it works, keep doing it,” he said. “If it’s a failure, don’t tell anyone about it. We’ve discounted the importance of small wins, but the way a lot of progress is made is through small wins that cascade into bigger wins. Especially now in these tough times, go for some small wins.”


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This article originally appeared on SAP BrandVoice on Forbes.