Sunday, April 21, 2013

In the Margin "Monthly Book Review" by Kim McBride

Drive: The Surprising Truth About  What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

Why do we do the things we do?  Sometimes the answers are easy. We go to work because we need to earn a living (and with any luck, also because we enjoy what we do).  We eat because we’re hungry.  We buckle our seatbelts because we want to be safe.  It seems so simple -- most of what we do seems to be done for one of two reasons – to get something or to avoid something.

 If behavior is just about “getting” or “avoiding,” then it should be simple to influence behavior – encourage good behavior with rewards and discourage bad behavior with punishment.  But Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead books, 2009), takes a close look at behavior in various settings and concludes that the story of what motivates us to do good work is really much more complicated.

In one compelling example, Pink takes us back to the early days of the Internet.  In the mid-90s, Microsoft decided to publish the first digital encyclopedia, sold on CD-ROM’s and later available for purchase over the web.  The company assembled an impressive (and expensive) project team of researchers, editors, software developers and managers.  At about the same time, a rag-tag group of visionaries decided to create a different kind of online encyclopedia – one that would be written and maintained by volunteers and available for free.  The results are instructive.  Microsoft’s Encarta has long-since disappeared, but Wikipedia has a strong and loyal following.

According to Pink, the old carrots and sticks no longer work.  Everyone needs to be paid for their work, of course, but assuming that the pay is fair and adequate, money alone does not motivate people to do their best work.  This is especially true in occupations that require risk-taking, creative problem-solving and the development of new ideas – in other words, in most of the work of the Information Age. In fact, rewarding workers with extrinsic rewards can sometimes discourage excellence by implying that the work isn’t worth doing for its own sake, but only for the reward (which is why paying children for good grades is probably not a great idea).

So what does motivate us?  Three factors deserve mention – we need to have some autonomy in our workplace, we need to have the opportunity to achieve mastery, and we need to feel a connectedness to our purpose and our coworkers. All of those factors were present in the Wikipedia workplace, while the Encarta engineers were well-compensated, but not well-motivated.

Much of human behavior remains a mystery, as any parent of teenagers knows.  But when we have some choices about how we spend our time, when we have opportunities to learn and grow, and when we feel committed to a higher purpose, we are likely to do our best work. 

McBride is the Reach teacher at Windham Middle School.

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