Will organizational leaders accept the evidence about incentives and creative work?

Daniel Pink, author of the excellent Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind, has a new book coming out in December. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us takes a look at the evidence about the links between incentives and creative, knowledge work. Recently, he spoke about his work at a TED talk in England:

If you’ve been paying any attention at all, his conclusions should come as little surprise. This is simply one more brick in the growing wall of evidence that the fiction of “rational economic man” has long outlived whatever utility it might have had. The evidence boils down to this; if you need creative and original thought out of people, economic incentives don’t work. Creative work comes from internal, self-motivation and requires autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

This is not news. The question that is interesting is whether organizational leaders have finally reached the point where they are prepared to act on this knowledge. If what your organization needs is creative, mindful, independent thought from all quarters and you must finally abandon the pretense that you can elicit that behavior with specific, concrete incentives, then how much harder has your leadership task become? If, to use Pink’s phrase, “sharper sticks and sweeter carrots” won’t work, what will?

The answer comes down to leadership. More specifically, it comes down to the kind of leadership exemplified by Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics. For Russell, leadership was about getting the best out of each of the players on the team more than it was about getting the best out of himself.

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