Saturday, May 20, 2006

Extrinsic Motivators and the Subjugation of Humanity

Many studies have shown that intrinsic motivators (pride of workmanship, desire to please, etc.) are far more powerful than extrinsic motivators (money, awards), and that extrinsic motivators tend to override the intrinsic ones. In a fit of clarity, or possibly cynicism, it occurred to me that a very clever company could boost the effect of intrinsic motivators to their benefit by making the extrinsic motivators appear unattainable; hence the hypothetical existence of extrinsic motivators would be a moot point in many people's minds.

One way to do this would be to institute a forced-ranking system in which ratings are continuously lowered seemingly regardless of what the employee did. As employees felt more and more unvalued, such a system would gradually cease to have any motivational value. The continual reduction in rating leading to eventual termination would appear inevitable. A person in such a system might then return to more powerful intrinsic motivators as they did their best because of their own internal goals, having correctly figured that trying to reach the carrot on the stick was impossible.

This brilliantly evil plan is not to be mistaken for a dysfunctional forced-ranking system in which the lower 10% are laid off, and no new hires are made. This results in ratings compression as the remaining staff are fit to the the same 20-70-10 distribution. This is not brilliantly evil; it shows a lack of the most basic understanding of mathematics, the same sort of stupidity as when a manager (and you know who you are) complains that half of the employees are below the median.

Which system you may be in is left as an exercise to the reader.


Robert D. Austin, Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations, Dorset House, 1996

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, & Total Nonsense, Harvard Business School Press, 2006

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