Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Candle Problems for Dummies: Not Apply Much Today

In his presentation in July 2009 on motivation, Daniel Pink makes a significant point: there’s a gap between science (the evidence) and what business does. Nowhere is it more obvious than with the subject of rewards. His point: people don’t always perform better with bigger rewards. Because it depends on the problem. The more complex, the less effect an external reward. Yet, organizations, as a general rule, don’t differentiate their approaches.

The first decade of the 21st century has been bountiful in its non-routine problems, constantly surprising us and keeping us off balance. These “out of nowhere” occurrences don’t have easy solutions.

When we apply our known routines to them, the puzzles often remain. For example, the early warning system for tsunamis did little to help the people on the American Samoa Island because it was too close to the epicenter of the earthquake. Many economists saw the financial crisis coming but could not apply their collective pressure (their early warning signals) enough to influence key decision-makers. Life has definitely become more complicated. There is much more work to do to prevent and manage risk, to anticipate and to imagine.

Opening up our minds literally is the way forward. That means motivating people from within than without. Pink stresses three factors: “autonomy” (letting people direct their own work), “mastery” (having the opportunity to get better and better at what matters) and “purpose” (being involved in something beyond ourselves).

David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, wraps up the challenge of motivation or engagement similarly in the acronym “SCARF”:

Status: praise and mastering a skill and being paid for it all boost an employee’s sense of status and by association—motivation. Threats to status like performance reviews do the opposite;

Certainty: uncertainty registers tension in the brain shutting down problem-solving ability. If leaders can create a perception of certainty, for example, by breaking down problems into small steps or by exuding the confidence that “We can do it!” the chains of uncertainty become less of a burden;

Autonomy: Many studies indicate that if people feel they are not being micro-managed, that they are able to direct their work decisions relatively freely, the more stress remains under control, the more inspired they are to do good work;

Relatedness: If individuals feel they belong (at work), they trust more and they are able to build the necessary relationships to innovate and to produce.

Fairness: Perceptions of unfairness activate hostility and undermine trust. Leaders that “do the right thing” help collaboration flourish.

As different from 20th century leadership and management, brain science in the 21st century is helping us better understand really what works. We know that threats to our well-being generate the fight or flight hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Chronic doses of these hormones do not open up our minds to novel solutions. On the other hand, serotonin and oxytocin flood our brains when we are happy and engaged. In turn, they help us focus and undertake higher problem-solving skills.

Like evidenced-based medicine, the science of the brain is illuminating the way for “people-management”, providing the hard evidence as to why soft power works. The candle-light of soft power multiplies not only in our minds but it also generates the energy for innovation.

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