Category Archives: Motivation

When Society Stops Rewarding Industry, We See Galtism

Following up on what motivates us to work and create, I want to point out a few cases of “Galtism” in current events.

(As background, John Galt is a character in Atlas Shrugged who leaves society when it stops rewarding his ingenuity and hard work.)

First, a letter from Jake DeSantis, an executive vice president at A.I.G. who resigned after the company reneged on its bonus contracts after it became politically unpopular:

As most of us have done nothing wrong, guilt is not a motivation to surrender our earnings. We have worked 12 long months under these contracts and now deserve to be paid as promised. None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house. (Jake DeSantis, “Dear A.I.G., I Quit”, Ny Times, March 24, 2009.)

Second, some musings on “what happens when government regulation makes it more expensive to bill for medical services than providers receive”:

More and more of my fellow doctors are turning away Medicare patients because of the diminished reimbursements and the growing delay in payments. I’ve had several new Medicare patients come to my office in the last few months with multiple diseases and long lists of medications simply because their longtime provider — who they liked — abruptly stopped taking Medicare.

This scenario is not academic. The health systems in Canada and the UK have shortages of doctors, especially specialists…which is why it takes months to get testing and diagnosis even for serious illnesses.

Among P.J. O’Rourke’s well-known lines is “If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it’s free.” The full speech is worth reading:

Freedom is not empowerment…. Anybody can grab a gun and be empowered. It’s not entitlement. An entitlement is what people on welfare get, and how free are they? It’s not an endlessly expanding list of rights — the “right” to education, the “right” to health care, the “right” to food and housing. That’s not freedom, that’s dependency. Those aren’t rights, those are the rations of slavery — hay and a barn for human cattle.

There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you…please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences. (P.J. O’Rourke, “The Liberty Manifesto”, May 6, 1993.)

Tee ‘em up

Golf provides another metaphor for getting things done. Take #2 on “crankable widgets”.

Growing up in Las Vegas, our favorite place to hit golf balls was Desert Pines. It was 30 minutes away, but it boasted a double decker driving range and automatic tees. After each hit, the tee dropped into the floor and re-emerged with a new ball. You could hit ball after ball without the pesky work of bending down to tee them. You could keep your stance and stay in the zone.

Imagine “teeing up” your tasks. Thoroughly prepare each task so the actual work of doing it is a simple, fluid stroke. Poorly prepared tasks require you to lean down. Well-prepared tasks are ripe for the hitting.

Bad: “Do taxes”
Good: “Find W2 forms and receipts in folder. Call accountant to setup appointment.”

Bad: “Christmas shopping”
Good: “Spend 10 minutes with pen and paper brainstorming what David might like for Christmas. Ask Mom for suggestions. Wait a few days to think about it. Order it online.”

Can you see how using concrete words makes each task easier to grasp? These changes may seem obvious to you, and perhaps you won’t need this much description. Be as descriptive as you personally need. But you’ll be surprised how fluidly you’ll move from task to task if you’ve taken the time to describe each task specifically and concretely.

Crankable widgets

The concept of transforming my tasks into “crankable widgets” helps me Get Things Done.

Imagine what it’s like to work in a factory: You are responsible for your part of the assembly line. The work may not be easy, but you know how to do it. You do it over and over. You are cranking out widgets.

Now think about your real job. It may not be like the factory at all. You create/troubleshoot/analyze things you’ve never created/troubleshooted/analyzed before. Experience helps — Phil Windley calls it “tacit knowledge” — but each particular task may be slightly new to you. Before “cranking” out each task, you must figure out exactly how to do it. Thinking must precede the doing. That’s why you’re called a knowledge worker.

If you find yourself procrastinating a task, it may be that you don’t know (exactly) how to do it. Your task needs more brain time. You must transform your task into a “crankable widget” — something you know exactly how to do.

Answering questions like these can help:

  • How do I do this task?
  • What part of this task is new to me?
  • If I were to watch a movie of myself doing this task, what would I see?
  • If I were to delegate this task to someone else, how would I describe it?

Sometimes a dreaded, procrastinated task becomes easy and even fulfilling after I’ve taken time to think about it.

(Thanks to David Allen and Merlin Mann for teaching me this concept.)

Presentation matters to motivation

I’ve recently been pondering how to motivate workers. I’m mostly interested in how to motivate volunteers in a nonprofit organization — a “cause”. Just a day after writing about it, I found a section in Made to Stick with good insight:

We may mistakenly think that people are motivated by the pursuit of baser needs, while we ourselves are motivated by loftier ideals. The book calls this living in the penthouse of Maslow’s pyamid while believing others live in the basement.

Imagine that a company offers its employees a $1,000 bonus if they meet certain performance targets. There are three different ways of presenting the bonus to the employees:

  1. Think of what that $1,000 means: a down payment on a new car or that new home improvement you’ve been wanting to make.
  2. Think of the increased security of having that $1,000 in your bank account for a rainy day.
  3. Think of what the $1,000 means: the company recognizes how important you are to its overall performance. It doesn’t spend money for nothing.

When people are asked which positioning would appeal to them personally, most of them say No. 3….

Here’s the twist, though: When people are asked which is the best positioning for other people (not them), they rank No. 1 most fulfilling, followed by No. 2. That is, we are motivated by self-esteem, but others are motivated by down payments. This single insight explains almost everything about the way incentives are structured in most large organizations. (Made to Stick, pp. 184-85)

So, the question isn’t just whether or not to give an incentive or bonus, but also how to present it.

If you’re motivated by a cause, an incentive may even offend you. When firefighters were offered a free copy of a safety video to review, they readily accepted it. When offered a free popcorn popper as a thank you for reviewing the safety video, one firefighter said, “Do you think we’d use a fire safety program because of some #*$@%! popcorn popper?!” (p. 188)

How to motivate workers

Not everyone agrees on how to motivate workers. I’m still trying to decide which of these ideas sounds most correct:

  1. Charles Coonradt, author of The Game of Work, gives five reasons why games are better than jobs:

    1. Feedback is much more frequent in games, 2. there’s always a score to “reinforce the behavior you want repeated,” 3. consistent coaching, 4. goals are more clearly defined, and 5. more personal choice. (source)

    For example, in a game of soccer, imagine how easy it is to know which goal is yours, who your teammates are, who your competitors are, how to get feedback from your coach, and how much time you have left to score.

    See also “Make Life More Like Games” by Sarah Milstein.

  2. In Managing the Nonprofit Organization, Peter Drucker says:

    People need to know how they do–and volunteers more than anyone else. For if there is no paycheck, achievement is the sole reward. Once goals and standards are clearly established, appraisal becomes possible. …with clear goals and standards, the people who do the work appraise themselves.

    In all human affairs there is a constant relationship between the performance and achievement of the leaders, the record setters, and the rest….If one member of an organization does a markedly better job, others challenge themselves.

  3. However, Joel Spolsky, quoting a Harvard Business Review article, says Incentive Pay [Is] Considered Harmful:

    … at least two dozen studies over the last three decades have conclusively shown that people who expect to receive a reward for completing a task or for doing that task successfully simply do not perform as well as those who expect no reward at all. [HBR Sept/Oct 93]

    …any kind of workplace competition, any scheme of rewards and punishments, and even the old fashion trick of “catching people doing something right and rewarding them,” all do more harm than good. Giving somebody positive reinforcement (such as stupid company ceremonies where people get plaques) implies that they only did it for the lucite plaque; it implies that they are not independent enough to work unless they are going to get a cookie; and it’s insulting and demeaning.

  4. A colleague of mine received the MVP Award from Microsoft. He said it’s peer selected, hard to get, and hard to keep. (You have to maintain annual certifications.) The award is given for past accomplishments, but he thinks it has the effect of motivating many people to do more.

Which one is it?

Do the same rules apply to volunteers at a nonprofit as employees at a company?

Thinking…