Motivating the knowledge worker

I was fortunate to have been recently invited to a talk by Bruce Daisley, Head of Twitter Europe, hosted by York University Alumni Association at Wayra, Telefónica’s incubator.

Culture, Technology and the Changing World of Work

Drawing from Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, Daisley explained an exercise conducted at MIT, where participants were paid for their performance in a series of physical and mental tasks. In the physical tasks, participants performed much better when motivated with money; however in the mental tasks, their performance was better when they weren’t being paid. The experiment was later repeated in India and the same results were observed.
This gives those of us charged with improving organisational productivity food for thought. If using compensation as a motivator doesn’t work for knowledge workers, can you increase output without increasing your staffing costs?
Pink suggests that the factors which motivate white-collar workers are threefold:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

The ability to choose the work (within a framework) with the greatest value for the enterprise, without having excessive hierarchy governing an individual’s decisions is conducive to increased productivity. The danger, of course, is that less desirable work is left to stagnate. This is why some level of governance is still required. In my experience regular planning and review meetings allow management to ensure that work is being completed and that less attractive tasks are being picked up.

Hack days were cited by Daisley as an example of a motivational tool which benefits both the enterprise and the individual. Choosing a theme which both challenges the employee and produces useful outputs for the enterprise is key, as is having a process which enables work that is taken into production to be supported.

Mastering a skill, tool or process is a personal reward for a knowledge worker, however it is important that employees are continually able to extend their skill sets and that those skills are valuable to the enterprise.