Archive for February 20th, 2012

What scientists know about motivation that business doesn’t


I just finished viewing Dan Pink’s taped talk at TEDGlobal from 2009. His topic was motivation and the mismatch between what science knows and what the business world is running with.

I thought I’d summarize the argument and throw in a few comments pf my own because this is extremely important.

The underling assumption in the business world is that if you want results you have to measure it and reward performance, typically with money or perks.

When put to the test, this model fails in all but highly restrictive and simple circumstances.

Pink shares the following conclusions for a string of studies (1).

  • “As long as the task involved mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance.”
  • Once the task called for “even rudimentary cognitive skill,” a larger reward “led to poorer performance.”

This is robust across cultures (2):

  • “In eight of the nine tasks we examined across the three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance.”
  • “We find that financial incentives … can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”

The reason for these results is that motivation is driven by or desire for:

  1. Autonomy (the desire to exercise control over one’s own life)
  2. Mastery (the desire to become good at, or master, something that is important to us)
  3. Purpose (the desire to be part of something important, something bigger than ourselves, the desire to contribute to society)

This has been pointed out by a number of other authors as well. One of these authors is Bjarte Bogsnes, one of the architects of the Beyond Roundtable solution to revamp traditional budgeting, forecasting, planning, performance measures and reward systems (3).

When actually put to the test in real work environments, productivity goes up, worked engagement goes up, worked satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.

Pink invokes the widely different outcomes of two large, real life initiatives as proof (or at least string support) for his contention: The quest to create a digital encyclopedia, Microsoft’s Encarta and Wikipedia, respectively.

The Encarta team was empowered in the traditional sense with a monetary reward system. Wikipedia, as we know had nothing like that at all. Yet, Wikipedia appears to be the bigger success.

Now, there’s probably a lot more to the story about this particular horse race, but it does offer support for the main contention. At the core of these research findings is that intrinsic motivators are far more effective than extrinsic motivators.

To summarize then, what science knows about motivators, but business doesn’t, is this (and I’m quoting Pink):

  1. “The 20th Century awards, those motivators, we think are the natural part of business; do work, but only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.”
  2. “The if-then rewards often destroy creativity.”
  3. “The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishment, but that unseen intrinsic drive; the drive to do things for their own sake, the drive to do things because they matter.”

We already know this; the challenge is now to definitively move past the carrot and stick mentality into something considerably better informed and effective. Something that actually appreciates people for the amazing problem solvers they are.


1)   D. Ariely, U. Gneezy, (2005). G. Lowenstein, & N. Mazar, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper No. 05-11, July 2005; NY Times, 20 Nov. 08.

2)   Dr. Bernd Irlenbusch, London School of Economics.

3)   Bogsnes, Bjarte, (2009). Implementing Beyond Budgeting, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

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The 13 core managerial competencies


When we talk about management or managing and what it takes to do it well, we sooner or later come around to asking what makes a good manager in the first place.

The topic has been, and remains, a source of endless debate. That said, I believe there are pockets of unusually insightful thinking and synthesis that actually advance the debate.

I have a personal stake in understanding this as I am frequently, on the hook for delivering training programs as part of the implementation and roll-out of projects I lead.

Too often, the training that is cobbled together in these contexts is not of a quality that I believe we really ought to be able to deliver. I have been thinking about this for some time and one intermediate realization is that we need to have a thorough understanding of what will make a difference to the trainees. I.e., a difference as in making it easier to learn, adopt or utilize whatever it is we’re rolling out at the time.

One group of people we train are managers so I’ll put my focus on this group here and now.

So what makes a difference to a manager? Well, one way to think about this is to consider it as a problem of managerial competencies. Either we have what we need to get the job done or we don’t. Any gap here is an opportunity for training and personal development. These two are not the same. Perhaps we should best just think about it as learning.

If we stay with the competency idea, what are core competencies we expect of managers?

Again, I will take my inspiration form Mintzberg (1) and share with you the list he used to inform the innovative managerial training program he pioneered.

The list is organized into four competency groups or categories:

  1. Personal competencies (working alone or developing oneself)
  2. Interpersonal competencies (working with or developing teams)
  3. Informational competencies (working with or processing information)
  4. Actional competencies (working on work – i.e., getting things done, taking effective and efficient action)

This expands on the more general distinction I have written about before which was inspired by Malone (2) and made the distinction about personal skills and team skills. Adding explicit distinctions for informational and actional competencies is helpful, as we would have come around to them anyway.

Here’s the list, then.

The 13 core managerial competencies

  1. Personal competencies (working alone or developing oneself)
    1. Managing self, internally (reflection, strategic thinking)
    2. Managing self, externally (time, information, stress, career)
  2. Interpersonal competencies (working with or developing teams)
    1. Leading individuals (selecting, reaching/mentoring/coaching, inspiring, dealing with experts)
    2. Leading groups (team building, resolving conflict/mediating, facilitating processes, running meetings)
    3. Leading the organization/unit (organizing, merging, building culture, managing change)
    4. Linking the organization/unit (networking, representing, collaborating, promoting/lobbying, negotiation/dealing politicking, protecting/buffering)
  3. Informational competencies (working with or processing information)
    1. Communicating verbally (listening, interviewing, speaking/presenting/briefing/, writing, information gathering, information disseminating)
    2. Communicating non verbally (seeing – visual literacy, sensing – visceral literacy)
    3. Analyzing (data processing, modeling, measuring, evaluating)
  4. Actional competencies (working on work – i.e., getting things done, taking effective and efficient action)
    1. Scheduling (chunking, prioritizing, agenda setting, juggling, timing)
    2. Administering (resource allocating, delegating, authorizing, systematizing, goal setting, performance appraising)
    3. Designing (planning, crafting, visioning)
    4. Mobilizing (firefighting, project managing)

As we peruse this list, it is clear that there are many other things we need to know or skills we need to acquire to be fully functional and effective in any given context.

And the context is the rub; it changes constantly as the work accents, as the business changes, and as we change where we work and whom we work with in the organization.

For this reason, we must ultimately create a dynamic learning environment to allow for a proper response to changing circumstances. Only then will we have achieved the goal of creating true learning organizations that develop the level of managerial competencies we really want.


  1. Mintzberg, H, (2004). Managers Not MBAs, Berrett Kohler, San Francisco, CA.
  2. Malone, D.M., (1983). Small Unit Leadership, Presidio Press.
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