Rewriting the laws of behavioral physics.

August 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I just recently acquired this morsel of cougar wisdom, courtesy my wife’s fascination with The Real Housewives of New York: Money can’t buy you class.

This got me to thinking. What else can’t money buy you?

To answer this question let’s get as far away from Bridge & Tunnel logic as possible. According to an MIT study, brilliantly reframed in this RSAnimate’s video, money can’t buy you motivation. In fact, monetary rewards lead to poorer performance!

As counter intuitive as this first seems, the study is pretty compelling and, I think, extremely relevant to the agency business, an industry completely reliant on human creativity and productivity.

The study essentially calls into question everything we’ve ever learned about human behavior: if you reward, you get more of the behavior you want, and if you punish you get less of the behavior you don’t want.

So if the carrot and the stick doesn’t work, what does?

There are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction:




Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed.  Interestingly, this runs counter to many corporate cultures where compliance is paramount.  The fact is, most people want to do something interesting. They don’t need to be told to, or even incentivized.

Mastery is our urge to get better at our craft. We want to be challenged, we want to improve and we want to make meaningful contributions. The RSA video points to the countless hours that programmers have donated toward the development of Linux and Apache, for no other reason than personal development and community contribution.

The last factor is purpose. Companies with a transcendent purpose are on the rise. Partly because having a purpose is the best way to attract better talent.  Who wouldn’t be excited about going to work every day for a company whose mantra is “do no evil”, or whose mission is to “put a ding in the universe.”

We spend a lot of time during our workday thinking about human behavior.  What carrots we can dangle to get people to desire our client’s products. But how much do we truly know about what motivates our talent. The lifeblood of our entire business?

What do you think?


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