IEET > Contributors > HealthLongevity > Andrea Kuszewski > Innovation
We Perform Best When No One Tells Us What To Do
Andrea Kuszewski   Nov 28, 2009   The Rogue Neuron  

How can companies get the best possible performance out of their employees? Let them do whatever they want! And furthermore, don’t offer incentives. Sound counter-intuitive? Not if you look at what research has shown regarding the economics of motivation.

According to Dan Pink (lawyer, speech writer, author, and career analyst), the way to get the best original ideas out of people is to cut back on restrictions and rules regarding output, and stop offering incentives for work produced. This may sound a little backwards, but science has shown that sometimes when we offer rewards for output or production, it effects the quality of the ideas or work as opposed to offering no incentive.

In his TED Global 2009 talk last month, Pink said, “There is a disconnect between what science knows and what business does.” And he adds, “Traditional notions of management work great if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, self-direction works best.”

So does this mean we should cut back on bonuses and perks for good performance? Well, maybe. In tasks that involve focused, clear objectives and goals, incentives do work. However, in tasks that involve creativity, innovation, and generating original ideas, offering incentives actually distracts from the mind’s ability to freely think outside of the box and be open to creative insights.

In Duncker’s famous “candle problem” illustrating Functional Fixedness (1945), subjects are asked to attach a candle to wall in a way to prevent wax from dripping on the table- given only a candle, a book of matches, and a box of tacks. Some subjects tried to tack the candle to the wall, others tried to melt the wax on the side of the candle to stick it to the wall. Neither of these worked. The solution is shown here.

The whole idea of this experiment was to show the importance of using creativity problem-solving to come up with functional solutions.

Sam Glucksberg, from Princeton University, decided to test if offering a financial reward helped people to perform better at this task. He found that when a financial incentive was offered for completing the task in a shorter amount of time, they actually, on average, took longer to solve the problem than the group that was offered no financial incentive. Why is this?

When we are offered a reward for a behavior, part of our brain is focused on that reward, which is how incentives work. However, if we are doing a task that requires creativity, narrow focus limits the range of necessary flexibility of thought that is essential to creative output. When we are given no incentive and thus free to completely devote our mental efforts to just solving the problem, our mind is able to generate these creative solutions faster.

Pink talks of companies such as Google and Atlassian who have pre-set “free work times”; during these times, employees have no restrictions on what they can work on, what time they have to be in the office, even whether or not they have be in the office at all to do their work. The only stipulation is that they have to get “something” done. It is these times, where they are basically free to work on whatever they want, that end up generating up to half of the total successful innovative developments for the company. Because the employees did not have to focus on anything like specs or any particular ideology, they were driven only by their own intrinsic motivation to work, thinking for the pure enjoyment of generating new ideas.

Autonomy, it seems, is the new form of management when it comes to creative output. In an age where computers are taking over computational tasks and more of the focused directional work, we rely heavily on the human capacity to be creative. Creativity has become vitally important for the advancement of society and the continuation of forward progress; development of new technologies, innovations, and even scientific theories are driven by creative ideation. If we want engineers, scientists, or any type of worker to be able to function at their absolute creative best, allowing them to freely explore their ideas without having to worry about restrictive subject matter, methods, or ideology is the best way to reach that goal.

Andrea Kuszewski, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, lives in San Francisco and works as a researcher and manager with VORTEX Research Group. She investigates the neurocognitive factors behind human behavior.


Thanks for the post. Interesting observations all. Be sure to look for the book version next month:

Dan Pink

Three cheers for the million dollar thoughts. Going through the article, I could easily reflect on my working experience here and how this concepts play a major role in our performances. This is more like wording my thoughts for the past two months.

If I am to add another couple of lines here, I would talk about the freedom that the employees can really take when it is given. Some of them may still want every small step to be discussed with the superiors and confirm every action before execution. May be this is also a result of giving too much attention to the work details rather than focusing on the output they produce.

The need for supervisor attention grows, equally grows the feeling of the supervisor that the employees can not handle their work alone. This is simply a start of an endless vicious cycle that hits the performance in the long run. Most of all, imagine how hard it would get to manage such a team.

Did the study say to can the incentives, or to start off /with/ incentives, but to phase them out?

I love the idea.
For some reason I am in the lucky position where i) I’m not a manager and ii) I can mostly decide what to do and how to do it.  They just see the results of my work and are happy with it.
Me, I am happy with the way they let me do my ‘thing’.
The reason is I’m the only person in the company with this particular experience, so no one really understands my tools & what I am capable of with these tools, but they realize that they need my output & input to help solve their problems.
I love it.

I’ve seen a version of this in action; not that employees had “free time”...but that some of our company’s most valuable tools were created by people working outside of the system.  Small groups of people meet outside of work, and during their discussions they come up with great ideas, and during work they’d eke out time to execute their ideas.  I think the lack of limitations freed them to create solutions that expanded the business as opposed to just improving it.

I also agree that incentives can hurt performance.  The company cherry-picks employees on big projects for recognition, and those who perform well on day-to-day tasks are mostly ignored.  My biggest fear of incentives for the output of free time would make people work only as hard as it takes to get a reward, and that true creativity would be stifled.

I’d like to hear more about these studies, and how personality type plays a role in the success of “free time.”  Everyone has something to contribute.  But some people are geared to do great things within a structure; they need guidance to help them perform.  Some people are geared to excel when working with a group, and some need to work alone.

Well well… I’m not sure bout it… I mean this is a really nice idea and I really would like to live in a place where everyone could to do anything just for do it. It would be wonder but im really not sure if it works in every situations… My point is what if people can be more creative when there is not a reward maybe it could occours in a lower frequency than when the reward is guiding and focusing, stimulating them to do their best… whatever could this situation be analized by another points of view!?

I completely love the idea of self-direction and self-pacing. In this connection I would like to connect with Steve Pavlina’s article that talks about a job as an ‘indentured servitude’. (“10 reasons why you should never get a job”). Because having a job means being told what to do and get paid for it.

I noticed that the article made no distinction between beginner workers and more seasoned workers. I find it hard to believe that there’d be no differences between them as far as incentives are concerned.

I use this as a method to get the best performance on any project or job I am in charge of. Simply said. I don’t order people to do things. I let them know what the goal is then observe. Sometimes they are not aware of their strengths. I then point them out along with creative constructive criticism to steer them away from their weaknesses. I have successful outcomes on time and within or under budget each time. It’s teamwork at its best with a good leader and the followers ranged from novices to decades of experience.

I found this motivation study described in a great animated video:
What it points out, but the article above forgot to mention, is that the traditional idea of motivation indeed works if the task at hand is mechanical in nature (like building widgets). However, if the task takes some mental effort, then what is written above, about the counterintuitive nature of reward /not/ being a motivator, holds true.

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