The surprising truth about salary motivation

Human characteristics are full of surprises. One of the interesting facets is the way we are motivated to do certain work. If you really want to know more about motivation, consider the following two contradictory questions at first: 

1) When you reward someone, do you get more activity out of that person than you expected? 

2) When you punish someone, do you get less from that person? 

In order to get to the core, The M.I.T conducted a study on a large group of students and presented a number of challenges in front of them that would challenge their physical and mental ability.  

The mental tests included number games, memory games, solving word puzzles, Sudoku etc. 

The physical ability tests included throwing a ball in the basket etc. 

To get a better performance, they gave the participants three levels of reward. Like, if they can get through the task anyhow, they will be given a small monetary reward. If they managed to get a minimum level, they will be given better prize money. If they perform excellently, they will be given a covetous monetary reward.  

Now, what was the result?  

1) As long as the task remained mechanical, they were motivated by the strategy the higher the pay is, the chance of performing well increases. They will also be intrigued by the bonus reward.  

2) But, as soon as they were given a mental ability test to check their cognitive skills, they performed resultantly poor inspite of a huge reward. 

Now, isn’t this surprising? 

Many economists and scholars from other disciplines will adjudge the second point in this way- as we surpass our cognitive ability, much to our surprise, rewards like these don’t sound fetching anymore. This is just opposite to the law stated by Behavioural Physics.  

Once when the reward was reformed, means the lowest performer will get money equivalent to two week’s salary, the medium performer will get the money equivalent to one month salary and the best performer will get the salary equivalent to two months. Not surprisingly, the highest reward got the worst performance. Higher incentives still led to worst performance. 

The fact is that it is not surprising. A number of psychologists, sociologists including myself, and other scholars from other professions believe that if the task is simple, like if you do A, you get B, people undoubtedly performed well. If they have to follow a set of rules, the typical carrot and stick approach, the better. But when it comes to a work which requires thinking, analysing, conceptualising etc, even the highest monetary rewards fall flat.  

Money is one of the biggest motivators. People won’t work if they are not satisfied with the pay package. The rule is that pay the people enough so that they think about the work only. Based on this fact, there are 3 factors which can lead to better performance and self-gratification. 

1) Autonomy– where the people fix the direction of work by themselves. If you want to keep your worker engaged to the management task, give them the autonomy to work. Don’t manipulate each and every step.  

2) Mastery– The urge to develop the skills to do better work. For example, there are a number of technically sophisticated people across the globe who have a good job are creating something and giving it for free, like the Wikipedia, Linux and many many more open source solutions etc. The question is how and why? The answer is if you master a skill, you can contribute hugely not for yourself but for the other people’s benefit as well. 

3) Purpose– Organizations work on a particular purpose so that they can get better output. But the fact is, when purpose gets alienated from profit, it will lead to poor performance. When you have a purpose driven by profit, you get the urge to do something better. 

So, when an organization can combine autonomy, mastery and purpose and treat workers as a human being, then there will be no need of extra motivation. 

This is off course one interesting research and a over- simplification of human motivation. But one interesting aspect of this is that in today’s and especially the future work market, we automate tasks, even complete professions get replaced by systems. Often what is automate are tasks that need less skill or cognitive ability, also high skilled tasks that computers can do faster and better. But for example creativity is hard to replace by artificial systems, at least for now. In the future we need top performers on cognitive ability. We need high skill performers working on various advanced technology, advanced implementation, cooperation and communication between various skill sets, and so much more that requires high cognitive ability and motivated workers with the drive to use their competence.

A solid work environment on all aspects in the human capital of future businesses will be required to stay alive as a company. Creating drive in people can be a challenging task. This makes pressure on HR, managers and recruiters to find and motivate the right people, with the right drive in the same direction as the organization.

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