Understanding behaviour

In his book Drive, Dan Pink looked at rewards, consequences and motivation at work and showed that much of what we have taken for granted is just not supported by the research. Extrinsic rewards only work for simple physical tasks and increased monetary rewards can actually be detrimental to performance, especially with knowledge work. The keys to motivation at work are for each person to have a sense of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose, as shown in this video. With this in mind, there are times when rewards and consequences are not linked to a desired performance, and this can lead to confusion or even worse. Rewards are still an important aspect to consider in workplace performance. Consider the case of medical researchers sharing their professional knowledge and findings amongst peers.

In a research-oriented work environment, it makes sense to share one’s knowledge so the whole team can be more productive. Insights from one person can save another a lot of wasted time. But what happens when this sharing is not recorded, or people are not given credit for their input? Compound this with a system that only rewards final discoveries, so that researchers have their bonus and career directly tied to their published work. Would you help out a colleague knowing that he alone would get credit for the final discovery? Would you be willing to share if the two of you were in competition for a promotion? Would you share if the company was letting go of staff based on merit, as measured in the annual performance reviews?

Klaus Wittkuhn wrote about human performance system imbalances several years ago in the Performance Improvement Journal.

It is not an intelligent strategy to train people to overcome system deficiencies. Instead, we should design the system properly to make sure that the performers can leverage all their capabilities.

Even if we trained researchers how to share their knowledge using social media tools combined with good network weaving behaviours, we likely would not get the knowledge-sharing behaviours the enterprise leadership say they want. This of course puts the knowledge management and learning support staff in a very difficult position. They know that the leadership says that collaboration is critical, but they see that the internal system has long-established barriers to real knowledge-sharing.

While a performance analysis can be helpful in determining the barriers to performance, sometimes these are controlled at such a high level that they are beyond the scope of those implementing new systems and initiatives. Perhaps the only thing that can be done is to highlight the issue by making it as clear as possible that all the technology and skills will not overcome systemic barriers. In the case of the researchers described above, not performing is rewarded.

Looking at Dan Pink’s three motivational factors, one can also say that even with a good degree of autonomy, mastery of a complex field of research, and a sense of purpose to create products for the benefit of society; there are still obstacles in creating an effective collaborative workplace. This is why anyone responsible for a collaboration project, such as promoting communities of practice, needs to look at all the factors influencing behaviour at work. There are no easy answers when it comes to changing behaviours in large organizations.

Performance Analysis process based on Mager & Pipe’s book
nalyzing Performance Problems

4 Responses to “Understanding behaviour”

  1. Joachim Stroh

    Another systemic barrier is “knowledge hoarding”, present in many large consulting firms. In this case, it has taken individuals a long time to achieve expert/partner status, so the incentive to share this knowledge is not given. There are few other dynamics that come to mind that could help remove barriers and break the dam: moving from push to pull (don’t wait for finalized orders), from stocks to flows (don’t wait for finalized deliverables), from narrow to broad (don’t wait for finalized messages). But, as you said, it’s for leadership to make that call.

  2. Marie Kenerson

    Punished by Rewards : The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie kohn
    (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993 / 1999)

    • Harold Jarche

      I agree that Gold Stars do not work to get the best performance, but I have observed many cases where the reward system significantly influences behaviour. While rewards don’t drive people, they sure can inhibit them.

  3. Ann H. Shea

    Another thought-provoking article, Harold. I enjoyed Pink’s book. I believe people are less guilty of knowledge-hoarding than simply time-starved, and documenting procedures to share knowledge with others in an organization does take time. If employees are given the mandate that teaching others–whether simply providing job process documentation or offering an in-house tutorial for fellow employees–is a corporate value and expected as part of each employee’s annual goal and performance objectives, then they will find time to incorporate this activity into their work schedule. Corporate mentoring programs are also a good way to capture and spread the intellectual capital that resides in seasoned workers.


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