When it comes to running a business, I have noticed that while many founders are advanced with the technical aspects of their business ideas, their understanding of how small businesses work is quite lagging and based on many concepts from the industrial age that long survived have usefulness decades ago. The science of business practices has advanced since the industrial age, but few entrepreneurs have noticed. What I am seeing is that many entrepreneurs work with a focus on the technical aspects of their business and forget about the evolution of business practices. While the changing practice of corporate management has several facets, I would like to focus here on motivating employees.
What many entrepreneurs and managers fail to realize is that the way we motivate a knowledge worker to excel is different from the way we motivate industrial-era workers.
In the agricultural age, most businesses revolved around family businesses. Motivation was based on obligation to family and ultimate survival.
However, when we entered the industrial revolution, the farm laborer at the time was ill-prepared for the business environment of the new industrial age. Since the worker no longer acted out of an obligation to the family business or out of survival, managers in the industrial age must motivate workers with levers that they could control.
During the industrial age, workers were employed in professions that mainly involved manual labor. The activities they carried out had clear goals and results. The company’s managers at the time helped set up public schools to train workers in reading, writing and arithmetic, the new language of business. However, in addition to providing them with the basic skills required to move the worker from the farm to the industrial era, you need to provide them with a way to motivate the worker to do their best. With the worker no longer working for himself, management needed a way to motivate the employee. Management began using extrinsic motivations in the form of a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage employees to perform at their best. When it came to carrots, companies offered their employees incentives in the form of commissions and bonuses to encourage them to make that extra effort. The crux of the matter was the loss of their jobs and income.
For many years, extrinsic motivations worked well to get workers to make extra efforts. However, most companies today, at least in the US, no longer employ workers from the industrial age. Today we work in the information age, and the extrinsic motivations that worked so effectively in the industrial age don’t work for today’s knowledge workers, whose work tasks are more of a cognitive nature. Most companies, both large and small, continue to adhere to the teachings that were developed during the industrial age. I think we can all agree that the work of the modern worker is much more different from the work of his predecessor in the industrial age. In addition, the era of an employer controlling all aspects of a worker’s working life has been replaced by a worker who is much more self-employed, as in the agricultural age.
Today, most employees are preoccupied with tasks that are more of an intellectual nature and that require the employee to focus on ideas and business goals that are marginal or less clear. When industrial age extrinsic motivations are applied to these workers, one study after another has shown that not only are they not working, but that such incentives actually lead to poorer performance.
For today’s knowledge workers, incentives must be based on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivators. Modern business administration is based on the use of three primary intrinsic motivators.
- autonomy – Today’s knowledge workers are no longer tied to an office and the 9-5 working day. The worker can work from anywhere and often works at odd times. Hence, the modern worker needs more autonomy to control when and where he works in order to achieve his optimal performance.
- championship – With the increasing specialization of the tasks of the modern worker, the mastery of the worker in his trade is often not fully understood by the manager. While the manager may have a vague understanding of all of the tasks required to achieve a goal, micromanagement is no longer a productive approach.
- purpose – Today’s worker cares far less about monetary incentives and wants to do a really important job.
Look at the history of Microsoft Encarta to dramatize that shift. When the home PC’s emerged, Microsoft hired and paid well a number of talented programmers and researchers to create what was considered a revolutionary product at the time, an encyclopedia on CD.
Today this model doesn’t work and Encarta has been replaced by Wikipedia. Wikipedia writers / editors, who usually work from home, use their mastery of a topic to volunteer to write on a specific topic that they know and are happy to share with others just because they believe in the purpose.
In summary, there is a mismatch between what science knows about motivation and what companies often use. Most enterprise operating systems are based on the use of extrinsic motivators designed for industrial age workers who worked in a very different environment than modern knowledge workers.
Are you still using techniques to motivate your employees based on old, outdated extrinsic motivations, or have you introduced a culture based on intrinsic reward to motivate them?