Motivation At Work

I just re-watched 3 TED talks that explores motivation at work. The speakers were talking about how to manage workers to increase their productivity through various tools.

Dan Pink: The Puzzle of Motivation

Dan Pink pointed out a very significant difference on how rewards work:

Higher rewards only yield better work performance when the tasks are mechanical/menial/manual.

He supported that notion with experiments that were conducted in both developed and developing economies.

As it turns out, for work that requires higher cognitive work, higher rewards would only work up to a certain point; beyond that ceiling, increasing reward does not improve performance. In this case, the meaning of the work comes into play.

Therefore, as an economy like Singapore moves up the value chain, and more of our workers take on supervisory roles, the kind of motivation they need is meaning to their work.

Dan Pink broke down motivation into 3 types:

  • Autonomy (to find solutions to work)
  • Mastery (desire to be experts in their fields)
  • Purpose (being able to see the effects of work done)

Dan Ariely: What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work?

Dan Ariely then gives more details on how supervisors can induce workers to work harder. He gave 2 examples of how this could be achieved:

  • Acknowledging the work done (A simple scan of the output works much better than cancelling the whole project)
  • Work has to be challenging for the worker, such that they value the output more and is willing to work harder for it.

In a way, the 2 examples corresponded to Dan Pink’s criteria for a motivating environment: Mastery and Purpose.

And in the environment that is the workplace, where workers often complain there is a lack of human touch, acknowledgement of work done would work by adding that touch, no matter how superficial, to the workplace.

Simon Sinek: How Great Leaders Inspire Action

Lastly, Simon Sinek, who is an expert on Leadership, raised another point crucial to creating an environment in which people are motivated to work:

  • Security

By diverting attention of the people away from having to fight for survival, these same people could then focus on doing their tasks at hand more effectively. There has to be security from outside threats, and also from internally.

It is like building a wall around the team (safety), but not restricting their movements within the wall (autonomy).


The issue arises, I guess, when people challenge the wall as restricting their levels of autonomy. I assume this could be resolved by allowing these individuals out of the walls, either by moving them to another department, or allowing them to leave the organization totally.

Moving or removing the walls should not be done, as there would be those who were comfortable working within the boundaries, and the walls also defined a work culture that could already be a significant part of the corporate identity. Modifying the wall could change the purpose of existence of the organization, which as we all might have experienced, causes disillusion amongst those who remain within the walls.

A manager therefore, has to focus on everyone who choose to remain in the walls. Humans desire engagement and connection and hence, a simple acknowledgement of their work adds to the human touch. As suggested by Dan Ariely, a cancelled project can still benefit the organization if the team were to present it to the whole company. That would allow others to learn from the mistakes, allow the positive, working aspects of the project to be diffused to other ongoing projects, and also does not act as a ‘shredder’ of the project in the eyes of the team.

After all, managers manage human, and human dynamics require more than a touch of a button or a simple input/output control interface.



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