Driving Me Crazy Yet Again: Valuing Personal Opinion Over Scientific Fact
I thought patience was supposed to come with age. However, the older I get the more impatient I have become and every day I see or read something that drives me crazy. The latest was a short article in Industry Week by Terry Mathis, Managing People with Animal Science. Although his title disparages and trivializes B.F. Skinner’s extensive research on the science of human behavior, he does admit to its value in organizations as he says Skinner’s work “…has impacted everything from corporate communications and organizational design to motivational strategies, such as rewards and incentives.” But, of course, he doesn’t stop there. Without quoting research articles he says, “New research has not so much refuted Skinner as it has begun to modify his findings.” He is referring to articles and books by Alfie Kohn and Dan Pink as well as unidentified research in “economic circles.” In my opinion Kohn and Pink are making a good living on “junk science” and Mathis is trying to capitalize on their success. Just because they are popular does not mean they are right. In fact most of what they write is stuff they have made up with little or no research behind their assertions, conclusions and recommendations.
As with the story of the blind man feeling an elephant trying to figure out what it is, they have felt the trunk and fashioned an animal of their liking. Research on Skinner’s work did not stop when he died in 1990. Since that time there have been several thousand research studies that have extended our understanding of human behavior beyond Skinner’s original formulation. (As of 2012 there have been thousands of articles, published in a variety of refereed scientific journals as well as thousands presented at professional conferences). Just as quantum physics has extended our understanding of the physical world beyond Einstein’s early work, so has research in behavior analysis built on the early work of Skinner. If I was to name just one thing that Mathis wrote that “drives me crazy” it is this, “The next set of research that caught attention originated in economic circles. Although it did not even allude to behaviorism or Skinner’s work directly, it did refer to something vaguely called “common wisdom” which can be interpreted as such. These experiments focused on how common rewards and incentives impact human performance. They found that, if the task being targeted was a simple matter of routine action, typical rewards and punishment worked as expected. However, if the tasks required even basic cognitive effort, the rewards often had an inverse effect.” This urban legend has been convincingly refuted by Cameron & Pierce (1994), Cameron & Pierce (2002), Carr, Mawhinney, Dickinson, & Pearlstein, (1995), Dickinson, A. (1995), Mawhinney, (1995), Heward (2011) to name a few. Anyone who says that rewards decrease motivation has not read the research, didn’t understand what they read or has an agenda that favors discounting it. Do authors not want to make money from their writing; do artists not want to capitalize on their artistic creations; do inventors not want to make money from their inventions? What they assert doesn’t even pass the common sense test. While I understand that my passion for the science is built on my own work, I also know it to be objectively accurate as that is what the research tells us.
The science and research! I have written before about Pink’s unsupported claim that some jobs that require thinking and creativity require a different kind of motivation than those jobs involving routine, repetitive work. I resent the implication that modern work requires smarter employees who are not fooled by trivial, old school rewards and who are able to see through such simple-minded attempts to manipulate them than those of the past. I can go on about Pink but will save that for another rant. But it is worth mentioning that Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose (the characteristics of his “new motivation”) reflect his lack of understanding of what Skinner’s research was all about. Again, it is demeaning to imply that a factory worker does not feel a level of satisfaction from seeing the accomplishments of his/her work; or that she cannot be motivated by feeling that she is creating something of value to customers. That is nonsense. For almost a decade, I taught the first day of a course on creativity at the Kennedy School at Harvard. The first thing I said was, “The most important thing you will learn today about creativity is that creativity is behavior and if you understand the laws of behavior, you can increase it or decrease it like any other behavior.” I wish more people in business understood that. One final “drive me crazy” point in Mathis’ article is the point about intrinsic motivation. While I understand what people mean when talking about this concept, very few writers understand where it comes from. (For the interested reader see Eisenberger, R. (1992). Learned Industriousness. Psychological Review, 99, 248-267.) I have characterized the problem this way, “You can’t be proud of yourself till someone has been proud of you.” I think “intrinsic motivation” comes from the outside-in rather than inside-out as Deci and Ryan postulate.
If you believe in the inside-out idea, it is easy to blame the performer for not being motivated. If you understand that the work environment works to increase or decrease intrinsic reinforcement in every job, then it puts the accountability where I think it should be – on management, particularly the executive who creates the processes and systems of work. Let me end with this. Whether you call it Motivation 1.0, 2.0 or X.0, the laws of behavior remain the same as they have always been. The better you understand these laws, the sooner you will be able to create a workplace that outperforms those who don’t understand them. As a by-product you will also create a place where people are happy about doing it.
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