Pink: Raise the Employee Engagement Ante

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SAN DIEGO—After months, even years, of being hamstrung by layoffs, hiring freezes and flat-lined compensation packages, approximately 700 recruiting professionals have converged on this city to re-energize, recommit and learn how to reinvigorate their companies’ post-recessionary staffing efforts.

The message they heard during the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2011 Talent & Staffing Management Conference & Exposition, however, was one that helps them focus on retention: That is, how to keep current employees by tapping the motivators that encourage them to stay engaged.

Social scientists have studied what motivates people for years, said best-selling author Daniel Pink during his April 11, 2011, opening keynote presentation. Pink, whose latest book—Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us—examines how this motivational research can be applied in the workplace to boost satisfaction and performance.

“If-then rewards are great for follow-the-recipe tasks” or for performing simple mechanical skills, said Pink. But the carrot/stick approach to motivating employees isn’t effective when it comes to creative, conceptual work. “You’ve watched these carrot/stick motivators fail, and you think that when they fail that means you just need “more carrots and bigger sticks,” he chided.

Instead, he said, the most important cognitive skill today is to give people something they didn’t know was missing. “Everything people do on the job is commissioned work with constraints that serve to de-motivate [them]. For example, money is a motivator in organizations, but people are extremely queued to fairness in organizations. If people think money is not handled fairly, it can also be a huge de-motivator,” he said.

“People can’t be managed or incentivized to engagement; they have to get there on their own. So pay people enough to take money off the table [as a motivator]. Instead provide them with these three intrinsic motivators:

  • Autonomy.
  • Mastery.
  • Purpose.

“The best bosses have high standards and give their employees autonomy over their time and [performance] techniques, or pathways to self-direction.”

Pink singled out companies such as Netflix, Facebook and Australian-based tech firm Atlassian as examples of companies that give their employees a high degree of autonomy to do their jobs.

“Netflix’s vacation policy is to give salaried employees as much time as they want when they want it,” he said. “Facebook lets its new hires go around and interview teams and pick which ones they want to work with.”

Pink said a lot of what companies like Atlassian, Google and Intuit bring to market is thought of and designed during the portion of the week that the companies give their employees to work on whatever they want.

In addition, employees are motivated to get better at what they do and to learn through receipt of frequent feedback.

“It’s more satisfying to learn stuff than it is to have learned stuff,” he said, and “it feels good to manage progress in one’s work. Performance reviews are designed to give feedback to employees to help them get better. But what’s wrong with the annual performance review? It’s ANNUAL!

“Younger workers’ lives have been rich with feedback, until they get into the office—a feedback desert,” said Pink. “Learners, unlike the learned, use … performance reviews regularly” to keep learning and improve their mastery.

Finally, Pink cautioned attendees not to give short shrift to the “whys” of what the organization does. This, he said, helps people find purpose in what they do. “We cover all the ‘hows’ all the time, but people want to know the ‘whys,’ too. This is what it means to be human. We want to learn, be engaged, contribute.”

Theresa Minton-Eversole is an online editor/manager for SHRM .