Debi O’Donovan: Total reward in the USA

Opening keynote speaker for the WorldAtWork Total Rewards 2011 conference Daniel Pink, business writer and author of the recently published ‘Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us’, said: “I am convinced we are using the wrong technology for engagement.”

In this case he uses technology in a very broad sense (so broad, some may dispute its use – but no matter, the lesson is still valid) to encompass the practice of management.

He feels that using management to engage staff leads us down the wrong path – especially if that management is of the old-fashioned version where staff are controlled and scrutinised.

“Most of us don’t scrutinise management enough,” he said, going on to explain that in his view management is simply a technology from the 1850s to organise people. “How many technologies from the 1850s are we still using today?”

Instead, staff need to be given autonomy, mastery and purpose. “Think of these as part of total rewards,” espoused Pink. He elaborates that the best bosses are usually described as having high standards, demonstrating fairness and offering autonomy (over time, tasks, technique and team – that is, who we work with).

“We don’t control people, we trust people to step up and do the right thing,” he said, giving the example of online video firm Netflix which allows employees to decide how much holiday to take each year – there is no prescribed annual leave. So long as they meet their targets, staff are free to choose how many or few days they take off.

“We hire good people; good people want to do good things, so we should get out of the way and let them do it,” he added. “If you want people to engage you need to notch up autonomy.”

Pink uses this 60-second test to determine an organisation’s autonomy:

How much autonomy do you have in your organisation?

Rate each question from 1 (low) to 10 (high)

  1. How much autonomy do you have over your time (i.e. when you start/finish work, take breaks, do certain tasks)?
  2. How much autonomy do you have over your tasks?
  3. How much autonomy do you have over your team (i.e. choice of who you work with)?
  4. How much autonomy do you have over your technique?

He said that organisations that score a total average of over about 27 points are doing well on autonomy; scores below 27 show there is a problem. If there is one number (out of the four) that is consistently low across the organisation, then that also shows there is a problem.

“You can’t buy people out of [that problem or low score] by offering them greater rewards,” he added.

Again Pink made his point simply, sometimes based on shaky terminology, but always salient in a way that should make all managers (reward or other) stop and think about their day-to-day workplaces.

Are you trying to bribe people with great rewards to boost engagement when the real problem is lack of autonomy?

Read another blog on Daniel Pink at WorldAtWork Total Rewards 2011