How well do rewards really work when it comes to incentivizing action? If you give more rewards, you’ll get more of the behavior you want, right? In his Advocamp 2016 keynote, best-selling author Daniel Pink flips that thinking on its head. Watch his presentation below to learn how and why companies should change the way they try to motivate and inspire their advocates.
We’re going to talk about motivation, from the perspective of employees but also of advocates. Before I start, I noticed a few people, upon hearing what I was going to talk about, roll their eyes, because you’ve seen this movie before. A bunch of people come to a conference. There are lots of people sitting down and there’s one dude standing up. The topic is motivation, and certain conventions seem to follow from that.
Maybe you expect me—especially since we’re on the edge of March Madness—to talk about some great athletic triumph that I had earlier in my life, where I stole the ball in the backcourt in the final seconds of the game and launched a Steph Curry-like three-pointer from 41 feet that won the game and won the championship for my team. I can’t tell you how much I would love to tell you a story like that. I grew up in a very basketball-crazed part of the Midwest, but found it was very difficult to hit the game-winning shot when you kept getting cut from the team. I can’t talk about motivation from the sports perspective.
Sometimes you hear people talk about motivation and they’ll tell you about the time they climbed Mt. Everest in 80 degree below zero weather with their two-year-old child and their family cat who became gravely ill along the way. I’ve never done anything like that either. I don’t do very many physically heroic things, so I can’t talk about motivation from that perspective.
I want to talk about motivation from a far nerdier perspective, much more characteristic of who I am as a human being: the perspective of science. What does science tell us about what motivates people? What does science tell us what motivates people in their formal employment, but also in their quasi-jobs, such as advocates?
It turns out that over the last 50 years there’s been an incredible amount of research getting at this question, an array of behavioral science and laboratory experiments and field studies. I want to tell you one big part about what they’ve found, but first I want to acknowledge that it’s a weird question to ask what motivates us. Every single person is an expert on motivation, not because you’re marketers, not because you believe in this idea of advocate marketing, but because you’re human beings. You’re experts. You have a deep and sophisticated knowledge of motivation, but the kind of knowledge you have is a peculiar sort of knowledge.
Implicit vs. explicit knowledge
Human beings have different kinds of knowledge. We can think of things as implicit knowledge and explicit knowledge. Let me give you an example of explicit knowledge. For example, if I ask someone what the federal capital of Canada is, they should know that it’s Ottawa, and they will know that they know this.
Now, let’s talk about implicit knowledge. It’s a little bit weirder. Implicit knowledge is when you know something but you’re not really aware you know it. Let me give you a case in point. Every single person has a deep and sophisticated knowledge of the laws of physics and I can prove that to you. If I stood on a log, and then took two steps to the left, I would fall off the log. It would take you half a second to figure that out.
This is not a joke: that is some serious processing power. How do we do it? Implicit knowledge. We don’t say, “Hmm, let’s see. Dan looks like he weighs 185 pounds. That stump is half a meter off the ground and the law of gravity is vigorously enforced, even in San Francisco.” We just know. That’s what implicit knowledge allows us to do: make very sophisticated, quick decisions and calculations, and act in a way that doesn’t require us to access underlying knowledge.
Here is the reason I’m mentioning this: most of our knowledge of motivation is implicit knowledge. Most of us don’t think about the laws of motivation in our day-to-day life. In navigating our work life, in working with others, in working with advocates, we don’t think about the underlying laws of motivation any more than we think about the underlying laws of gravity or Newton’s laws. But we know them.
If we bring our underlying laws of motivation to the surface, they go like this. When you reward behavior, you get more of it. If you punish behavior, you get less of it. We don’t say those laws out loud, but they form the foundation of what we do. My guess is that, in the last 48 hours, all of you have taken an action and made a decision based on those implicit laws of motivation.
Here’s the great thing about the scientists that I mentioned earlier. What I love about scientists is that they take those kinds of propositions and say, “Humor me here for a second. Let’s consider those laws just a hypothesis rather than settled, and let’s test them.”
That’s what social scientists all over the world have done over the last 50 years. I want to give you a top-level view of what they found, and a just below top-level view of one element they found, which I think is essential for advocate marketing. Then we’re going to talk about how we can use different elements of this science to be more effective on the job and with our advocates.
How rewards really work
Here’s the top-level view of 50 years of science of motivation, of research studies in laboratories and in field experiments increasingly using big data. It tells us this: when you reward behavior you get more of it sometimes. When you punish behavior you get less of it sometimes, but not all the time, and—here’s the kicker—not nearly as much as we think.
If you go into your encounters and those underlying laws are off, you’re going to make some mistakes. What’s worse is that you’re not going to know why you’re making the mistakes, so you compound them. What I want to do here is quickly calibrate your understanding of motivation in one dimension, and then we’ll talk about how to do things a little more effectively.
This is the key idea. This is for any of you DJ Khaled fans out there. This is the major key. It’s complex, and it’s nuanced. There’s a lot of nuance when it comes to advocacy, but there’s one core idea I want to leave you with. It’s probably the most important idea in the 50 years of research on motivation.
I want to give you a study that exemplifies this. One of the researchers was Dan Ariely, who did this when he was at MIT. He’s now with Duke and he did it with somebody at Carnegie Mellon, somebody at the University of Toronto and somebody at UC San Diego, so big name, prestigious, North American colleges and universities.
Here’s the study that that they did. (They actually did nine different experiments in all.) They divided their participants into three groups. They had everybody in the groups do a series of challenges.
- Physical challenges, like throwing a ball through a hoop.
- Cognitive challenges and brain challenges, like memorizing a string of digits, or alphabetizing cards quickly.
- More complicated cognitive challenges, like solving a math problem, or come up with as many unique uses for a paper clip or a brick as you possibly can.
They treated everybody the same, except for the reward that was promised to them for high performance. To the first group, they said, “If you’re one of the top performers, you get a little bit of money.” To the second group, they said,”If you are one of the top performers, you get more money—ten times what the first group is getting.” They said to the last lucky group, “If you’re one of the top performers you get a lot more money. You, in fact, get ten times what the second group is getting or a hundred times what the first group is getting.” Make sense?
Now, we expect the group with the largest reward will outperform the group with the second largest reward, which will in turn outperform the group with the smallest reward. This is what happened. As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as expected. The higher the pay, the better the performance. Group three killed it, group two did the second best, group one did the worst. Exactly what we’d expect.
Here’s where we begin to zero in on the key idea, the major key in this research. Here’s what they say: “Once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poor performance.”
That’s peculiar, isn’t it? Watching this election season, I think there’s a huge divide between Americans and Canadians. That’s very disturbing to Americans. A larger reward leads to poorer performance? That can’t be right. That’s un-American. This is Bernie Sanders socialism. How could this possibly be? I know no one in San Francisco is concerned about socialism creeping onto the shores of the United States, but believe me, outside of San Francisco they are. If you’re concerned, take a look at the notoriously socialist group that sponsored this research. It’s the Federal Reserve Bank. Here you have four economists—two behavior economists and two neo-classical economists—doing research funded by the Feds coming to this conclusion that’s at odds with a lot of our implicit knowledge of motivation. What’s going on here?
The effectiveness of if-then rewards
Here’s the major key. There’s a certain kind of reward we use in organizations to motivate employees, to motivate ourselves and to motivate our advocates. Psychologists call them controlling contingent rewards. I call these rewards if-then rewards. As in, if you do this, then you get that. Here’s what 50 years of science tells us about if-then rewards, and this is important when it comes to advocate marketing: if-then rewards are great for simple tasks with short time horizons. They work extremely well, for reasons like instant gratification, compensation for your time, and best of all, rewards.
We love rewards. Intrinsic motivation, which I’ll get to in a moment, is extraordinarily important, but that doesn’t mean that human beings don’t like rewards. It’s the exact opposite. We love rewards. They get our attention. Let’s say that Jim said to me, “Dan, I’m bored with your presentation. Let’s try to liven things up. If you can stand on a log for three minutes on one leg, I’ll give you $500.”
You’d be focused like a laser beam. You would figure out where to put the log. You would figure out what leg to stand on, and you’d figure out if there’s a clock you can see. That if-then reward, that little carrot dangling out there, will improve your performance. There’s no doubt about it because we love rewards. They get our attention.
However, the same body of research tells us that if-then rewards are not so great for complex and long-term work. Why? Let’s go back through this. One of the things I’ve noticed about people in these cutting-edge businesses is that they’re always looking for very complex explanations when, in fact, many explanations are simpler. What you want, Einstein said, is to come up with an explanation that is as simple as possible but not too simple. There’s a simple explanation. Let’s go back to first principles.
Human beings love rewards. That’s a very good frame of mind if you know exactly what you need to do, if you know exactly what steps you need to follow, and you need to follow them down the road, march down those steps, and get to the right answer.
What if the task requires creativity? What if the task requires conceptual thinking? What if you don’t even know what the question is? What if you have to sustain your motivation over a long haul? If you’re trying to come up with an entirely new marketing strategy, if you’re trying to iterate a new product, a new offering for your company, we want to look at it expansively. If-then rewards are very good if the task is simple and it has a short time horizon. It’s less good if it’s complex and creative and has a long time horizon.
We should use if-then rewards as motivators for performance in organizations as well as with our advocates when the tasks are simple and short-term, but not when they’re complex and long-term.
The problem is that we tend to use these if-then rewards for everything rather than the category where we know that they work. Then, when they go awry, instead of saying, “Those if-then motivators as carrots and sticks failed again, maybe we should try something else,” instead we say, “Those carrots and sticks failed again. Maybe we need sweeter carrots. Maybe we need more carrots. Maybe we need carrots with more beta-carotene.”
When it comes to sticks, we say, “Maybe we need sharper sticks. Maybe we should poke people in the eye three times rather than just once.” This takes us down the wrong road. How do you do things differently? We’re going to examine this question internally for those of you thinking about what motivates people on the job, but I think that we can take some of this knowledge and import them to the world of advocates.
Let’s talk about how to do that. There’s a foundation both in terms of dealing with your advocates and also dealing with people inside of companies. This is a clip from a TEDtalk by a guy named Frans de Waal. He is a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta. This is the starting point for all of our efforts in terms of motivating people whether, again, we’re motivating them on the job or whether we’re trying to motivate advocates. Let’s go to the video.
That’s what you need to know as a starting point. No matter which domain you’re in, you have to treat people fairly. Human beings are exquisitely attuned to the norm of fairness. You violate the norm of fairness, you’re toast. If you don’t start out with a fair system, you’re not going to get people to be motivated. Inside a firm, this means that you don’t have to pay everybody the same, but there has to be a justification for why you pay people differently. If you have two people doing comparable work inside of a company, with the same level of experience and the same level of contribution, and one is getting paid more than the other, the second person is demotivated. Why? It’s not fair.
If you have advocates and you’re offering a certain amount of goodies or prizes or swag for doing something, and then suddenly you recruit new advocates and they’re getting a lot more than the original ones, the original ones are going to be demotivated. Why? It’s not fair. Fairness is your starting point. If you have a system that is perceived to be inequitable, you can’t even begin to talk about some of these deeper kinds of motivations, whether you’re talking about compensation inside a firm or how you treat your advocates.
Autonomy, mastery and purpose: the cornerstones of motivation
Once you establish the groundwork of fairness, there are three core motivators for enduring performance on more complex, creative tasks. They are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Let’s talk about autonomy. I have two little tidbits of research to show you the positive side of this. I want to go straight to what I think is the punch line for advocate marketing. The big problem with if-then rewards isn’t the rewards, it’s the if-then. The if-then is why if-then rewards go awry. It’s a little bit of a head fake because the rewards are tangible, they’re noticeable, they’re shiny, we see them. The big problem with if-then rewards is the if-thenness of it, the contingency. The contingency is what causes the corrosive effects of if-then rewards in certain areas. Why?
An if-then reward is a form of control. It’s one person trying to control other people. Human beings have only two responses to being controlled: they comply or they defy. But here’s the thing. Inside a firm do you want compliant employees? No. Do you want defiant employees? No. Are your best advocates compliant? No. Are your best advocates defiant? Probably not. The problem with if-then rewards is that the if-then is a form of control. You don’t get people to be fully engaged if they’re being controlled. You get compliant behavior or defiant behavior.
Now, there are certain domains in which we want some measure of compliant behavior. I don’t think that’s the case with advocate marketers, because people are doing these things at their own discretion. You want them to be fully engaged, and the way that people engage fully is by getting there under their own steam. The technology for engagement isn’t control, it’s self-direction. If you’re looking for ways to get people to be absolutely engaged in what you’re doing, whether you’re talking about employees or advocates, you have to give them some autonomy over the core aspects of their enterprise:
- Over their task – what they do
- Over their time -when they do it
- Over their team – who they do it with
- Over their technique – how they do it
When people have more sovereignty over these aspects of their work, they’re more likely to engage and do great things, whether they’re employees or whether they’re these volunteers you’ve enlisted as advocates.
I want to give you two interesting pieces of research that locked this down, particularly in the employment setting,
from very different domains. Let’s talk about China. Let’s get out of the groovy world that most of us are in and go to manufacturing plants in China. There’s a great study that’s been done there. In China, certain manufacturing plants look like this. They have the bosses at desks in the front of this cavernous manufacturing floor and the employees do their work. The bosses who are at these desks monitor them and watch them to make sure they aren’t shirking.
A fellow at Harvard Business School, with some Chinese graduate schools, did this ingenious experiment a couple of summers ago. They brought a large curtain into the manufacturing plant that, for half the factory, prevented the bosses from seeing the employees. In the other side, it was left the same. In this group, the bosses are still monitoring the employees. In the first group, there’s a curtain that prevents the bosses from seeing the employees. The question was, “How much, if at all, will this hurt the productivity of the first group?”
How much, if at all, will not being able to be seen hurt the productivity of this group? Here’s what they found out. Hanging a curtain to conceal workers from the manager’s view increased production by ten to 15 percent. The curtain prevented distractions, and allowed workers to test productivity-boosting ideas before explaining them to managers.
Now, think about this. When you are at work and your boss is around, not only do you have to work, but you also have to look like you’re working. What they found out is that, when the people are being monitored, which is a form of control, they don’t want to get in trouble. When they couldn’t be seen, they were a little bit more autonomous. They’re having sidebar comments. They’re coming up with better ways to do things. They’re experimenting with stuff that they wouldn’t do if they were being monitored and controlled.
It leads to this great headline in Harvard Business School Working Knowledge: “Hiding from Managers Can Increase Your Productivity”. There’s something to that because it’s really about autonomy. Self-direction is how people do great things. People can’t do great things under conditions of control. Even though we have this urge to monitor and watch and record everything people are doing, if people know that they’re being monitored, watched, and recording, they’re going to be constrained. There’s an argument for letting go. There’s an argument that self-direction and autonomy is the pathway to people doing great things.
Let me give you one other piece of research. I’m just going to give you the punch line. It’s a sociologist at Stanford, talking about things that happen inside companies. He found that workplace social functions are less effective if initiated by the manager. What’s better are worker-established engagements set at times and places that are convenient for them. The social gatherings that come from the top feel like a form of control. Workplace parties that are designed to make people feel good, to build community and so forth, are actually a different species if they’re created by the boss versus whether they’re created by the people who work there.
The core point here is this: if you want people to do great things on the job or as advocates, you have to give them autonomy over their time, team, task, and technique. You don’t have to go crazy, but your default setting should be for greater and greater autonomy. A big lesson here is to let your advocates surprise you. They’re going to do stupid stuff and they’re going to make mistakes, but the only way that they’re going to do great things is if they’re not in conditions of control.
Let’s go to the next one, mastery. Mastery is our desire to get better at stuff. I’m going to give you one piece of research that I think is the most important in talent in the last 20 years. I think it has a lot of applications for advocate marketers. It’s done by Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School. She went to eight or nine organizations in North America and got several hundred people at these organizations to volunteer to receive an email at the end of every day. The email said, “How was your day? Where you motivated or not motivated?” People would respond to the emails, “Today I was motivated because of X. I was unmotivated because of Y.”
The methodology is important. If I say to you, “How was your week two weeks ago?”, most of us can’t even remember it. When we start thinking about it, we might start remembering the highs and the lows, but we have no idea how we were doing Wednesday at 11:30. However, if you ask people at the end of a day, “How was today?”, people are pretty accurate assessors.
She asked people at the end of every day, “Were you motivated or were you not motivated?” and they would reply with daily diaries. She did this for more than a year for several hundred people. She ended up with a total of 12,000 daily diary entries of people’s day-to-day motivation on the job. She crunches the numbers, which is a very difficult research undertaking. It’s all qualitative data, so you need a squadron of graduate students to code words and then you have to go count. It’s laborious, but profound. She crunches the numbers, and finds out the single biggest day-to-day motivator was making progress in meaningful work. The days people were making progress were the days they were motivated. The days people were making progress were the days they wanted to come in the next day. The days people were making progress were the days they were loyal to the organization. The single biggest motivator by far was making progress.
This feels intuitively right. When you make progress you feel good. When you come in the next day, you’re more likely to make progress because you’re feeling good. The challenge we have inside companies is that their architecture isn’t really designed to help people make progress, because progress depends on feedback. Here there is a subtle but urgent distinction in advocate marketing. I would love to give you an algorithm for determining this boundary, but it isn’t there so you have to keep this in mind.
The truth about feedback
Let’s talk about feedback in advocate marketing. When points, badges, and prizes are used as feedback, they’re great. People want to make progress, and the only way to make progress is to get information on how you’re doing. When you get information on how you’re doing, you can recalibrate your strategies to try to make more progress. The badges, points, and prizes are neutral at some level in terms of motivational sense. It depends on how they’re used. When prizes, badges, and points are used as feedback to say, “You’re making progress,” they’re great. However, when points, badges, and prizes become the point of the exercise, they’re not so great, because that leads to compliant behavior rather than self-directed behavior. Worse, if for whatever reason you need to remove the points, badges, and prizes, and they go from tangible to intangible rewards, you’ve totally lost people.
Points, badges, and prizes are neutral. It depends on how they’re deployed. Deploy them as feedback and they’re fantastic, because people want to make progress. They need information on whether they’re making progress. If they morph into becoming the point of the exercise, you’re going to get lazy behavior, you’re going to get some compliant behavior, you risk getting cheating and so forth. It’s a very subtle distinction, but extraordinarily important.
What you want to do is help your advocates learn, grow, and make progress. If people are learning, growing, and making progress, life is good. You have people who are autonomous, who are engaged and who are doing great things. Recognition, to my mind, is a form of feedback. If people are doing things only for recognition, they’re going to be less effective. Let’s put these autonomy and mastery ideas together because I think that once you see how they interact, it’ll be a little bit clearer about how these motivational concepts square for advocate marketing purposes.
There’s this tendency when we talk about intrinsic motivation to say, “Get rid of the badges, get rid of the prizes, get rid of the points.” That’s not right. It’s how they’re actually deployed. If they’re deployed as feedback, it’s all good. If they’re deployed as the entire point of the exercise, you’re going to run into some problems. Let’s talk about how these things work together.
Let’s say that you have a system that has people don’t have much autonomy and no opportunity for mastery. That leads to boredom. Bored advocates are not effective advocates.
Let’s say you have a system where you have no autonomy, but you actually have some mastery built in. There you have rigidity. There are certain systems where that’s okay. Let’s say you’re on a Navy submarine, and you want to learn how to put out a kitchen fire. You don’t need autonomy, you have to do it the right way. There’s a certain level of rigidity that’s necessary in some systems, but I don’t think it works very well for advocate marketing.
Now, let’s say you have autonomy but no mastery. Then you have a hippy dippy drift. Your people do whatever they want, but they don’t get any better at anything. They don’t make any progress.
The sweet spot is when people have both autonomy and mastery, because then you have engagement, people are self-directed, and they’re getting feedback on the way they’re making progress. They’re self-directed and they’re getting information that helps them get better. How these things work together is enormously important.
The importance of having a cause
I’m going to give you one last study that yields a really important takeaway for advocate marketing. Remember, what we’re trying to do is let our advocates surprise us and help our advocates make progress. The third one is purpose. This is a really interesting study at a call center at the University of Michigan where work-study students are making outbound calls to raise money from University of Michigan alumni.
These researchers divided the callers into three groups. Everybody is treated the same way. The only thing that’s different is what these callers do for the five minutes before they get on the phone. For the control group, in the five minutes before they get on the phone, they read a newspaper article.
The second group, for the five minutes before they get on the phone, they read a letter from someone who used to work at the call center testifying to the personal benefit of having worked there. “My name is Joe Smotz. I worked at this call center for a year and a half as an undergraduate. It was a really good resume item and it helped get me a job as an account executive at an ad agency in Toronto.”
The third group also read letters, but from people who are on the receiving end of the money that was raised. “My name is Joe Smith. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to university but I got a scholarship to Michigan funded by some of the money raised here.” “My name is Maria Lopez. I’m an oncologist at the University of Michigan hospitals. I do research on breast cancer, which is funded by some of the money raised here.”
The first two groups improved their performance over previous weeks, but the third group did even better. They earned more than twice the number of weekly pledges and more than twice the amount of weekly donation money.
Think about that from a sales perspective. You’re a sales manager and someone says, “I’ve got a five minute cost-free intervention that can double production. Interested?” There’s a lot of research on this, showing that the idea of purpose is one of the most potent and cost-effective performance enhancers you have. People want to feel a sense of purpose. They want to feel a sense of meaning. They want to feel that they’re part of something larger.
The advocacy lesson here is to enlist your advocates in a cause. In many ways, if you think about the points and the badges and those kind of things as feedback that you get in the service of the cause, the cause should be the most salient thing. The cause can be making a difference or changing the world. It could be making a contribution. You’re helping people out in some small way. You want to enlist your advocates in a cause. This is the third piece of the puzzle. Let them surprise you. Help them make progress. Enlist them in a cause.
I want to end on this note because I think there’s a very specific tactical thing you can start doing in terms of your relationships with your coworkers and if you have people reporting to you, but also in relation to your advocates. It’s built on this research but, to me, it’s the ideal: the holy grail in terms of working better, working smarter, living our lives slightly better. It’s to try to marry things that have a strong evidence foundation with simple, practical things that we can do in our daily lives. No one is going to go take a nine-week course in autonomy supportive management, but if you have the research foundation and a few practical, tactical things people can do on the job, I think that can cascade into big things.
My last piece of advice on this is the following: think about the division between how and why. When we’re leading people, when we’re dealing with these advocates, we often talk about how. Here’s how you do this. How is important, but we also give short shrift to why. Why are we doing it in the first place? Why does it matter? Why does my piece contribute? There’s this rich body of material in social psychology, economics, sociology and even to some extent in biology and cognitive science showing that this is the cheapest, most cost-effective, performance enhancer you have inside a company and with your advocates.
The one tactical thing that I want to urge you to do is the following. Next week, have two fewer conversations about how and two more about why. If you find yourself dealing with an employee and you’re about to say, “Fred, here’s how…” stop yourself. Turn it into a why conversation. If you’re communicating with your advocates and you’re about to say, “Here’s how…” stop yourself and turn it into a why conversation. Again, this is a very simple, practical thing that you can do. I think that you will see an upping in performance.
Let’s wrap it up here. When we think about autonomy, mastery, and purpose, here’s the thing, how many of you want to be self-directed rather than controlled? How many of you want to get better at stuff and make progress? How many of you want to know why you’re doing something rather than just simply how to do it? We make a cognitive error in many cases. We think of ourselves. Of course I want to be self-directed, but they don’t. Of course I want to get better, but they don’t. Of course I care about purpose, but they don’t.
There’s a great journalistic adage that says, “Always extrapolate from your own experience because you’re not that special.” Think about others the way you think about yourself. The hopes and aspirations that you have are likely to be very similar to other people’s. If you start treating people inside of your company and your advocates as human beings who want to have some sovereignty over what they do and how they do it, who want to make progress, who want to contribute to the world, I think you’re going to make your corner of the world a little bit better, and I think you’re going to be more effective at your job as marketers.