AUTOMATION TEAM: Motivating Knowledge Workers

Sept. 1, 2010
One of the essential functions of leadership is to motivate followers to do the work of the organization.

An old joke goes: How many people work here? About half. When did you start working here? When they threatened to fire me. As you survey your automation team, how many people work there? Do they want to be there? Or are they there because they need a paycheck—and their minds are elsewhere?

To obtain the productivity your organization needs to survive amongst some of the toughest competition the world has known, you need to discover what makes people come to work and what makes them want to do a better job. If you want to avoid costly employee turnover and the recruiting and training expenses that turnover causes, then you need to know what makes people tick and what will keep them there.

There exists some surprising research about what motivates people to work. Daniel Pink, a best-selling author, reviewed the research and published his findings in his latest book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” Most people, when considering motivation, fall back on the old analogy of the carrot and the stick. The idea persists that to get people to work harder, pay them an incentive. If that doesn’t work, then threaten them with unemployment.

Pink found that there are two basic kinds of work. One kind is rote work. All the steps of the task are predefined. The worker need only follow the steps, complete the sub-tasks one-by-one, and then the task is finished. The other kind of work requires the worker to think. She must devise the way to do the task and thinking is required to complete the task. Researchers have studied these types of work and conducted research by giving rewards for completion of certain tasks in the laboratory.

That workers doing the first type of work were motivated to do more work faster when offered greater rewards proportional to the completion of more work would not be a surprise to almost anyone. However, workers doing the second type of work were actually disincentivized by the offer of greater reward for completing more tasks. They would joyfully work on solving the problem for free in the controlled part of the experiment. But when the researcher offered money for completing more, they seemed to lose interest and performance went down.

The first thing leaders should do with new knowledge worker hires is to pay enough to take the issue of money off the table. If a knowledge worker feels paid to the anticipated level of the position and skill, then money is no longer an issue. So how are knowledge workers motivated? Pink’s research reveals three areas of expectation. These are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy, mastery, purpose

Knowledge workers need to be trusted to be left alone to accomplish the work. Put a programmer in an office with some pizza and soda and check back later to find the program finished. Let these workers determine how they’ll go about organizing the work. Trust them to finish, but still follow up with them.

Knowledge workers seek mastery. Give them an opportunity to polish their skills, as well as to take classes that will enhance their skills. Give them an opportunity to show off their work—that is, their mastery of a skill.

And third, knowledge workers live with purpose. Why does the organization exist? What benefit does your product or service provide to society? Why should they be working on this project?

Peter Drucker identified knowledge workers about fifty years ago. We’re still learning how to make use of their talents and skills. As the newer generations enter the workforce, it will be even more critical to understand how to motivate them.

Gary Mintchell, [email protected], is Editor in Chief of Automation World.

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