Motivating Employees: Feedback and Autonomy Matter

Want to motivate employees? Feedback and autonomy.

Interesting coincidence. Had lunch with a close friend on Sunday to catch up. Midway through, he said, “Oh, I didn’t tell you my great news.” He works as a scientist for a government health organization and said he finally got the go-ahead to work on his project. I had never seen him so animated and optimistic about work. “I just have to present updates every week or so to show my progress.”

A few hours later, I’m reading The Washington Post business section where the weekly On Leadership column happens to be by bestselling author Daniel Pink (“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”). It’s about motivation and the fact that most employees are taught to comply rather than engage. “People don’t engage by being managed,” he writes. “They don’t engage by being controlled.”

He then cites a positive example—one that is “in many ways the most actionable for organizations”—concerning a software company in Australia called Atlastium (great name!). “Once a quarter, on Thursday afternoons, it says to its software developers: ‘Go work on anything you want. Do it the way you want. Do it with whoever you want. Only thing we ask is that you show what you created to the rest of the company on Friday afternoon’—in this kind of fun, freewheeling, Friday afternoon meeting. It calls these things FedEx days, because you have to deliver something overnight.

“It turns out that this one day of intense, undiluted autonomy—it’s incredible, this one day—has led to all these ideas for new products, fixes to existing products, improvements for processes within the firm. One day. And it’s so bizarrely radical in that it’s not saying, ‘Hey, if you come up with something great, I’ll give you a little carrot.’ It’s saying, ‘Let me get out of your way, because you’re a talented human being and you probably want to do something good.’ ”

Now there’s probably a happy medium between the six months or so that my friend was given and the one day that Atlastium gives for results. But Pink’s hypothesis makes sense. He argues that humans inherently want to get better at things, be it our recreational sports, musical instruments we play, crafts we do (anyone check Interweave’s growing site lately?) and yes, our jobs. The problem, he writes, is that “organizations aren’t really architected for that”; there is very little feedback to help us get better at work.

Young people, Pink continues, have always lived a life of instant feedback. Their online activity draws immediate sounds and responses. Games give them scores, searches give them matches. But then they come to work and “feedback comes in the form of a once-a-year, awkward, 45-minute conversation with your boss…And I think that the more there are mechanisms to enrich that level of feedback, people become more satisfied and they actually get better at stuff. And that has this kind of renewable energy of motivation.”

Raise your hand (or write a comment) if you’ve ever had one of those “45-minute conversations.” Pink argues that management is an archaic “technology from the 1850s…designed to get compliance.” And while “we want some measure of compliance in organizations…what we want more than anything else is engagement.” And that, he writes based on recent polling, is “staggeringly low.”

What makes that last statement eyebrow-raising, if at all true in our circle, is this: What do SIPA members want most from their customers—actual and potential—besides money? Engagement. So we see online communities, listserves, talkbacks, webinars with Q&As, requests for videos and other techniques to get customers to partake and share.

It seems that Pink is saying we need to bring a bit more of that philosophy in-house.


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