Driven Or Incentivized

The annual cry to the workers at the performance review of our large corporations is do more with less. We get coerced and incentivized as the business models recommend from the current playbooks of our big business schools. But the big question for the fast moving growth enterprises is are their people driven or incentivized?

The guys in the successful start-ups are clearly driven, while the rest of us are left toying with the size of bonuses or promises of a new gymnasium facility as our incentives. 16-hour days don’t result from the idea that we’ll be able to spend our lunch break on a new treadmill.

In the latest issue of Experimental Brain Research, Minamimoto et al report on a study to check out the origin of motivation on a repetitive task (1). One aim of the study was to determine if the motivation was due to externally applied factors (incentives) or an internal factor(s) (drive).

The task was designed so the subjects had to press a bar, hold it while they saw a patterned cue which would indicate the size of the prize. They then saw a red marker indicating that they hold the lever and after a period of time it would change to green so that they could release the lever. A blue marker indicated that they could take the reward.

The cue card indicated the size of the prize to tell the participants which were more desirable activities. If the bar was released early or the reward not taken promptly, the prize was forfeit and they were shown to be committing an error. Repetitive and boring work, but not too difficult to accomplish.

 Only two participants were put to work. They were male rhesus monkeys and the reward came in the form of drops of water, 1,2,4 or 8 drops. As this was all the monkeys got to drink, 8 drops was a prize indeed, a big incentive.

The measure of the internal factors, the salt level in the blood, was continually monitored as an indicator of thirst level. Higher osmotic pressure (more salt) meant they were thirstier and had stronger drive, QED.

Now results. Did the size of the reward make them pay more attention to getting it right, or did their thirstiness make them do better? Well, a nice little mathematical formula was derived to describe how the error rate decreased as the thirst level increased.

If the monkeys were very thirsty, they made damn sure the got some water, however much. There was no way they would be casual about one or two drops and only work for eight.

This is clearly a lesson already understood by the 1% as the cash flows copiously into their accounts and they allow it to trickle down in small drops to us 99%.

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