Harnessing renewable motivation sources

In Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us - Dan Pink compares the use of performance-contingent rewards to burning coal and the nurturing of intrinsic motivation to solar power. He focused on how coal is a cheap fuel to burn with costly consequences. As I reflected on his analogy, I recalled that infamous picture of steel mills in full production putting out so much smog the streetlights were left on in the daytime. That image perfectly fits the toxic impact of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. To add the image of solar power to this, the smog of coal-fired, non-renewable, extrinsic rewards blocks the renewable sunshine from getting used as an energy source.

This analogy rings true to my experience with my own intrinsic motivation. It's not even slightly difficult for me to get fired up to do the things I love to do, including reading and writing for this blog. Yet whenever I get dragged down by something I have to do, in spite of it's bad timing, ill conceived solution or wasted effort, I have lots of trouble getting back in touch with my intrinsic motivation. It's as if I have polluted my mental skies anytime I avoid a stick or earn a carrot. Consequently, I cannot see through the smog of performance-contingent motivation I've poured out my smokestack to that boundless source of renewable energy in me.

When I've addressed this contrast between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation with executives or college students, I've used a different metaphor. I compare intrinsic motivation to the lifeblood of any vibrant endeavor. Full blooded efforts are energizing, as if there is a renewable source of motivation within us. When we're tapped into our intrinsic motivation, we lose track of time and amaze ourselves with our endurance, dedication and zest. We get into "the zone", also called the "flow state".

I've defined the blood chemistry of lifeblood with DS/RAM components: Dignity, Self Reliance, Autonomy and Meaning:
  • Dignity: We respect our abilities, limits, passions and perspectives. With self respect and trust, we have the basis to respect and trust others.
  • Self Reliance: We trust ourselves to keep our commitments, deliver results and learn to do things better. This may require asking for help, getting shown a better way or admitting our lack of experience.
  • Autonomy: We realize we perform better when we're left to decide how to do it and when to get it done. We find we're a better judge of what we had in mind and what problems we created for ourselves.
  • Meaning: We put our own spin on everything and see what we want to see. When this subjective process works for us, we see cups as half full, see clever ways to turn lemons into lemonade and see solutions within the obvious problems.
Conventional management and personnel evaluation methods throw this baby out with the bath water. It reminds me of the archaic practice of bloodletting whenever the life blood of an endeavor has been removed by higher ups and control tactics. Manipulators of extrinsic rewards try to solve motivation problems by removing DS/RAM. By draining the participants of their "bad blood", it's assumed they will be more motivated. Bloodletting killed George Washington, the first President of the US, after he had retired to Mount Vernon. The practice of getting bad blood to cure sickness was still being used during the Civil War in the next century.

It appears we are equally slow to catch on to harness intrinsic motivations and renewable energy sources. As Dan Pink says, our management practices are twenty years behind the science. He wonders whether we may end up eliminating the profession of management once we realize how self motivated everyone can be when they're not getting managed. I'm thinking we will even be competent at evaluating ourselves once work gets done informally.

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