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CAN WORK BECOME FUN?

“DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”

By Daniel H. Pink, Riverhead Trade (2011)

A Post-It Note is likely within your arm’s reach. That ubiquitous stickie was invented by 3M scientist Art Fry during free time the company gave him to work on whatever he wished.

Hope of extra pay (carrot) or fear of being fired (stick) may motivate workers with routine jobs like the checker at your supermarket. But carrot and stick doesn’t drive creative workers like Art Fry. Their motivation is internal.

How a creative person feels while working on a project is the strongest and most pervasive driver. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheeks sent me high”) calls that feeling “flow”. In “flow” people live so deeply in the moment and feel so utterly in control that their sense of time, place and self seem to melt away. “Flow” is more likely experienced while working rather than at leisure. Work becomes fulfilling fun! Says Pink,

“Children careen from one flow moment to another, animated by a sense of joy, equipped with a mindset of possibility, and working with the dedication of a West Point cadet.”

Consider all the “open source” software that’s free on the Internet, or the free apps for your smart phone. Someone is giving you their creative work free of charge because of intrinsic motivation -- just for the fun of it. An example: Microsoft tried to sell Encarta, a disc and online encyclopedia, but pulled it from the market after sixteen years. Meanwhile, open source Wikipedia – which is free – has become the largest and most popular encyclopedia in the world.

The American Red Cross discovered that paying for blood didn’t work. Hence their slogan: “Donating blood generates a feeling that money can’t buy.”

Extrinsic rewards for achieving goals imposed by others, e.g. sales targets or quarterly results, encourages “gaming the system” – sometimes yield unethical behavior, undue risk-taking, decreased cooperation or reduced internal incentives. Paying people to stop smoking, to exercise or to take their meds can produce terrific results short-term, but the healthy behavior disappears once the rewards are discontinued.

Supported by outdated theories of “scientific management” most corporate leaders continue to assume that most employees dislike work and would avoid it if they could. Thus most people must be coerced, controlled, directed and threatened to produce adequate effort to get the job done.

More recent research differentiates between Type X behavior fueled by what you get for working, as opposed to Type I behavior, fueled by what you experience while you’re doing the work. Type I workers don’t disdain money or recognition. But once pay and working conditions are adequate, the focus is off of money, allowing Type I workers to concentrate on the work itself. (A Nobel Prize is nice and the $1.2 million welcome, but that’s not the goal.) Type I behavior seems to be the default setting in most of us. Creative work doesn’t depend on keeping our true nature submerged, but upon allowing it to surface.

According to Pink, creative work requires three nutrients: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy doesn’t mean rugged individualism but rather significant choices in the ways we work – significant freedom from top-down direction. 3M gave Post-It note inventor Art Fry 15% of his time to choose what he worked on. Free time work by Google employees generates more than half of its new offerings.

Lawyers (especially senior associates) have precious little autonomy over their work. Firm requirements for billable hours leave little space for free time. For too many lawyers, work focus veers from solving client problems to piling up billable hours.  If firms reward time billed, then time is what firms get. And this can leave clients dissatisfied. (No wonder some clients are refusing to pay time charges for first year associates to learn what more experienced lawyers should already know.)

Mastery is being very good at your work while knowing you will never be good enough. Mastery is the unfinished product of pain and grittiness invested over a professional lifetime. As basketball great Julius Erving said, “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”

Purpose is hitching our desires to a cause greater than ourselves. Witness the rise of “not only for profit” companies that operate like for-profit businesses generating modest profits but primarily aimed at offering significant social benefits. Three states officially recognize such low profit limited liability companies (“L3Cs”). An L3C in North Carolina is acquiring abandoned furniture factories, updating them with green technology, and leasing them back to furniture manufacturers at a low rate. The profit-maximizing objective is eclipsed by a social benefit goal. The organization is both economically self-sustaining and animated by a public purpose. (L3Cs make more digestible the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent declaration that “a corporation is a person”.)

Traveling about, I try to bear in mind how most people I encounter are desperately clinging to their jobs. The current economic downturn motivates workers to knuckle under to the carrot and stick, to suppress their creativity. Tempted to over-control in these tough times, wise managers will nevertheless pause to contemplate the Post-It notes phenomenon. There’s likely to be a bit of Art Fry in each of us. Some free time and encouragement to follow our creativity might just lead to the company’s bottom line.

Gerald Le Van
Chair Family Wealth Mediation
Upchurch Watson White and Max
November 2011

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