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Motivation At Work

The management of communication technology in the workplace today is a result of a failure to understand what motivates people and the impact of generational differences. In order to understand that failure, we must create a common understanding of what does motivate in the workplace. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink discusses the gap between what science knows and what business does.

“The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive—our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to make a contribution.”

Pink refers to these desires as autonomy, mastery, and purpose. His observations about motivation are largely based on the work of a researcher named Edward Deci. Deci’s work deals with self determination theory (SDT). SDT claims that opportunities to satisfy the needs of autonomy, mastery, and purpose will facilitate motivation and innovation[i]. Furthermore, these intrinsic motivators trump extrinsic motivators like money when it comes to solving problems that are creative in nature[ii].

These aren’t just the wild eyed theories of a former Clinton speech writer or academic researcher. The idea that autonomy, mastery, and purpose provide intrinsic motivation that drives creativity and innovation is validated by the efforts of two former Best Buy employees, Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson. In 2003 Ressler and Thompson were working out of the corporate headquarters in Minneapolis, struggling with the dichotomy between “managers…mired in analog-age inertia” and the “giant work kibbutz” enabled by wireless communication technology[iii]. Inside the office, Traditionalist managers valued face time and long hours while outside the office a new information age was evolving, freeing people from the confines of having to physically see anyone or be anywhere.

Prior to 1981, people had to go to the office because that’s where the resources were to get work done. Even with the introduction of IBM’s 5150, the lack of widespread network connectivity made it impractical to use the device anywhere besides the office. “People couldn’t work virtually because there was no virtual, only physical space and real time”[iv]. The physical reality of work drove us to some faulty assumptions about what’s really important when it comes to work. “The assumption is that you need to keep track of your time for more than billing purposes. Without knowing how long a piece of work takes you can’t measure its true value”[iv]. Ressler and Thompson’s solution to the motivation problem is the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). In a ROWE, time becomes relative. How, where, and when work gets done is at the discretion of the worker. Results are what get measured. For ROWE, the results are promising.

Ressler and Thompson piloted the concept in the web division of Best Buy. Turnover within the group dropped 16%--to zero. Productivity and quality also increased and employee engagement measures rose to an all time high.[iii] The success of ROWE at Best Buy demonstrated that, in general, workers thrive on autonomy, mastery, and purpose. That success is enabled by the myriad communication and collaboration technologies now available. Despite the preponderance of both evidence and enabling technology, firms continue to operate using the principles developed during the Industrial Revolution. “Technology seems to have changed the game—people telecommute and do business via BlackBerry 24/7—but we are still playing by the old Industrial Age rules, the rules of the factory floor and typing pool” [iv].


[i] Deci, E., Ryan, R., & Baard, P. (2004). Intrinsic Need Satisfaction: A Motivational Basis of Performance and Well-Being in Two Work Settings. Journal of Applied Social Psychology , 2045-2068.

[ii] Pink, D. (2009). Drive. Riverhead: Riverhead Books.

[iii] Conlin, M. (2006, December 11). Smashing the Clock. Retrieved August 12, 2011, from Businessweek: http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_50/b4013001.htm

[iv] Ressler, C., & Thompson, J. (2008). Why Work Sucks. New York: Penguin Group.

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