Monthly Archives: January 2010

Dan Pink on Motivation

Dan Pink was at the RSA this week, selling his new book Drive. Pink’s presentation at TED was one of the highpoints of TEDxTuttle, so I was keen to see him in the flesh.

He was talking about motivation and how it relates to our working lives – and in particular to reward cultures.

I have to say that I was more than a little disappointed. It wasn’t that he was uninteresting or a bad speaker – indeed, he was very engaging; instead, it felt like I had heard his talk before. He didn’t seem to add much to his TEDTalk.

His main thesis is that businesses focus on the wrong things to motivate people. They generally use the carrot-and-stick approach to performance management, relying heavily on financial reward packages, rather than using more subtle, and possibly more effective, methods which utilise other needs – our desire for autonomy, the reward from mastering skills, and our sense of purpose.

He quotes work done by Ariely and co [PDF] which demonstrates, for tasks requiring higher cognitive skill, increasing financial incentives actually have a negative effect on perfomance. (For manual, physical skills – despite the move to “knowledge working”, a large proportion of jobs even today – the link between increasing financial incentives and increased performance still holds.)

The Economist recently reviewed Pink’s new book with a rather successful critique. People need money. Even Pink isn’t giving away his book (though I’d better check that…). I haven’t read the book – though I intend to – my comments are only based on his talk.

In his talk, Pink pointed to a flaw in his argument: if appealing to workers’ higher level needs for autonomy, mastery and purpose, you need to get pay people enough so that money isn’t an issue. How much “enough” will be is clearly a personal matter – but I would bet that for most people, their jobs don’t pay nearly enough to clear that hurdle. If you pay below that hurdle, financial incentives will probably work. For some people, that hurdle might be very high.

It also felt like Pink was guilty of treating everybody the same, just as most common reward systems do. But different people will have different drives and motivations. Maybe people who do respond to financial incentives are those who will be good at jobs which have that reward structure. We might all scoff at the large bonuses paid to investment bankers, but whilst we might covet the bonus, would we be willing to do the work? I doubt it.

Pink ran through a list of businesses which incorporate an appeal to the higher level drives to motivate their staff: Google with their famous 20% time; Atlassian’s ”FedEx days” (they have to deliver on projects overnight…); Zappos designing their call centres around the simple goal of “solving customers’ problems” anyway staff see fit (doing away with the rigid control and scripts most call centres adhere to); Tom’s shoes, which aims to “transform customers into benefactors” (no, Pink doesn’t know what they mean, either); Skype aiming to “make the world a better place”. (As a sense of purpose, he could have added Google’s entreaty “don’t be evil” – though that didn’t stop them submitting to China’s demands for censorship, nor their apparent flexible view of customer privacy.)

There are other businesses Pink could have discussed – WL Gore, the makers of Goretex and other hitech PTFE solutions, springs to mind: they have a very different approach to organising staff and operations, and from what I have seen have clearly won the hearts and minds of their staff that I have met.

The thing is, this isn’t new. WL Gore was founded in the 1950s. The last large corporation I was employed by went to great lengths in its attempts to bring its staff into the fold – to make them feel they belonged to the organisation and its culture (albeit a culture that was dominated by financial reward), even as they went through serial rounds of restructuring and redundancy. The practice of “human resource management”, which dates from the 1970s, is all about tying employees into the culture, locking them in so that they will go far beyond what is normally required – and to do it by themselves, internalising the motivation and control.

This is what the company men of IBM and GE used to do; it is why the salarymen of Japanese corporations remained with one firm for life. Of course, those same Japanese firms were quite happy to lay staff off during the downturn of the 1990s, as GEC and IBM made staff redundant when they changed their business models.

I’m not saying Pink is wrong – just the opposite, I think he is spot on. I just don’t believe what he’s saying is particularly new or radical, and I don’t think it is universally applicable. Perhaps reading his book may prove me wrong.

Smile or Die: Barbara Ehrenreich at the RSA

The managing director of a business I used to work for once demanded from the firm’s staff that they would enjoy working for the firm: he told everyone they had to “have fun” in a droll, distinctly unhumorous Mancunian accent. It sounded more like a threat than anything else.

Barbara Ehrenreich would have sympathised with us. In discussing her latest book “Smile or Die” at the RSA last week (and all over other media as well – she was on both BBC radio and tv the same day), she attacked current orthodoxy that one had to think positively about everything – to see every knockback as an opportunity, and every kick in the teeth as a positive event.

It was an interesting thesis, though she didn’t wholly win me over: it is generally easier to get on with our lives if we have a positive outlook than otherwise, albeit that, in Ehrenreich’s words, we are deluding ourselves.

She started her war on the positive after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She reacted strongly against the advice to keep a positive outlook, and started to investigate the culture of positive thinking. She found that there was no evidence to support the view that maintaining an optimistic view would increase the likelihood of survival. She reckoned her scientific background (she used to work in cellular immunology) enabled her to sceptical view proposed mechanisms through which positive thinking is said to work: there is no link between optimism and a healthy immune system, and no mechanism by which a healthy immune system could have helped her survive her cancer (as she had been told).

She like she was treated as if she had two diseases – the first, an aggressive and pernicious cancer; the second – her bad attitude.

She railed against the view that a positive outlook can influence the material world – “the secret” used to sell self-help manuals around the world. She said that those seeking to prove the benefits of positive thinking were guilty of cherry picking – presenting only the evidence and examples that support their arguments, ignoring evidence against it.

In the corporate world, delusional optimism is a necessary prerequisite to succeed. Any form of realism is seen as dissent. Failure to smile and spread good cheer means that you will be perceived as “not being a team player”. She met Wall Street bankers who were aware that the pre-crunch boom could only lead to disaster, but who couldn’t say anything for fear of being fired. (Paul Moore, former head of regulatory risk management at HBoS was apparently fired for raising his similar fears – effectively, for doing his job.)

She described the “mandatory optimism” required in America, in all walks of life. She thought it was rife in politics, citing the need to toe the line and remain positive (rather than realistically critical) as key to the USA’s failure to adequately plan for the aftermath of the war in Iraq: conceiving of failure and planning for its possibility simply wasn’t an acceptable option to the strategists in the White House. Any politician who failed to exhibit a positive attitude today would be doomed to fail, whatever their manifesto promises.

Ehrenreich had lots of issues with this prevailing positivism. Firstly, it is delusional, which could only be a mistake. Secondly, it is cruel: it implies that people’s problem lie within themselves – that it is their bad attitude, their negativism, that lead to personal disasters (be that redundancy or tsunami – Ehrenreich quoted an American commentator who believed those caught up in the Asian tsunami of 2005 had only themselves to blame). And thirdly because such wilful ignorance stops us taking reasonable mitigating action. It provides a sticking plaster for society rather than tackling the real issues facing us.

She described positive thinking as a system of control, rather than the empowering personal tool practitioners portray. This crosses into the area of emotional labour, such as when supermarket checkout staff are exhorted to smile, when employees are told they will “have fun” whether they want to or not – when our very emotions become a commodity.

Everything that Ehrenreich said made sense. And yet… When push comes to shove, I would rather have, and be with others who have, a positive attitude than not – albeit one which is tempered with a healthy dose of realism. If we believe that positive outcomes are possible, it seems clear that we are more likely to work towards them than if we don’t – for instance, if we really believe that whatever we do we cannot hope to survive climate change, society would not work towards mitigating climate change.

Ehrenreich also seemed to conflate positive thinking with positive psychology; she expressly disagreed with much of the views of Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology as a practice. As I understand it, positive psychology is about looking at and working with what works well, rather than looking at situations in which people are not functioning well, and building psychological models around that. That seems to be quite different from the dogma of positive thinking. Perhaps her book explains her views on positive psychology – in her talk, her focus seemed clearly on the very different, and clearly delusional, positive thinking. She believed that a focus on happiness was misjudged – happiness is too vague a concept and subject to whim: small changes can greatly influence our happiness.

My first tech review…

The announcement this week that Google has produced its new phone reminded me that I have been meaning to review my phone for months. I am not a real technology person: for me, gadgets are tools to be used; so I’ve not written any reviews before, reckoning that these are better written by technical experts who can explain what all the bits and bytes actually mean. On the other hand, I have months of experience of using my phone – so here goes!

In the UK, there has been a Google-branded smart phone for a year or so – T-mobile’s G1 (indeed there is the G2, too – the G1 is no longer available…), running Android OS and manufactured, I think, by HTC. (Incidentally, the new Google Nexus is just a Google-branded phone: it will of course be made by a phone manufacturer – and that will also be HTC.)

Photo from CMSWire

I have had the G1 since August, I think.

It is the first smart phone I have had, and it has changed the way I interact with the internet; I cannot imagine not having unlimited, usually instant access to the web. I use it the whole time, and my phone has probably become the main means by which I use the internet.

There were other smart phones I could have, but I particularly wanted a physical (rather than touchscreen) keyboard. The G1 has cantilevered touchscreen which flips up to reveal a small QWERTY keyboard, so it has the advantages of the touchscreen and a keyboard when I need one.

I love it.

It isn’t perfect, though.

  • It has a rollerball for moving the cursor around the screen. This is completely useless – it is very hard to control, being far too sensitive with no drag at all. I hardly ever use the rollerball, and frankly it just gets in the way
  • headphones connect the G1 through a mini-USB port, using an adaptor. Why? WHY?!! This frankly makes the phone useless for listening to music. If I have to carry the adaptor cable (which just gets tangled up in my pocket or bag…) I might as well carry my iPod. Which is what I do, though manly because…
  • …the music player is appallingly bad. I mean, really very poor indeed. I have tried it a couple of times, and frankly I don’t know why they would bother creating a music player if it can’t cut it. I am pretty sure that there are other players available from the Android store, but I am not going to bother to look.
  • The touchscreen is sometimes hard to control: sometimes when I am scrolling, it opens links on the web page instead, which is irritating; sometimes (probably due to my inattention to grease marks…) it doesn’t scroll at all. Like I say, possibly my fault.
  • In particular, the touchscreen doesn’t do some of the fancy tricks that I have jealously seen people do with their iPhones – pinching and opening fingers to zoom in and out, for instance. This may be gimmicky, but I think it could also be very useful – particularly with maps.
  • I often – really very often – don’t hear incoming calls ring, despite the ringtone being set as loud as possible. This even happens when I am expecting calls, and listening out for them! It just seems very quiet.
  • the dialer/contact list isn’t intuitive for me; it takes two or more actions to dial from the contacts than just one, which is just daft, frankly. This could be much better designed.

So whilst I love it, it isn’t perfect. It has changed the way I use the internet – but with a little more thought, it could have been so much better.