Monkeys and Motivation

I am still working for Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), helping introduce a new software system for managing, sharing, saving and storing information. I work with a team of Business Analysts, Information Management specialists and a host of others to help build the best information management solutions for each of NRCan’s business units. Our goal is to ensure effective uptake of the GCDOCS system.

(In other words, I’m working with a group of folks who’s job it is to get people motivated and interested in using this new system. It’s not easy, and motivation is a challenge.)

I’ve been doing a lot of research about change and motivation, and how to help people manoeuvre through the challenges that are thrown their way on the road to something new. Luckily, I found Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”, and I’ve been eating it up. Pink writes not about change, but about motivation, and what motivates us to do anything.

You have to read backwards, of course, but this is the book.

You have to read backwards, of course, but this is the book.

Harry Harlow was a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1940s, doing research in primate behaviour. Pink provides the reader with a detailed description of Harlow’s experiments on learning with rhesus monkeys. Harlow grounded his research in the fact that the monkeys had two main drivers that powered their behaviour: a biological drive – food, water and reproduction; and an external reward/punishment drive.

What happened in Harlow’s experiments was most interesting. The monkeys were given a puzzle that they had to learn, and they very quickly learned to do it. In fact, they completed the puzzle simply because they found it gratifying. There was no reward, no satisfaction with food; Harlow realized that the monkeys found it gratifying to solve puzzles. The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.

How does this relate to GCDOCS and NRCan? The GCDOCS team is putting a huge amount of effort into motivating staff by focusing on the second driver – reward and punishment. Change management activities are based on the premise that the staff will not be inclined to use GCDOCS, and we need to first reward them when they do, and then perhaps threaten them with taking away their access to other shared drives in the future.

What if we looked at the third driver of behaviour? What if we focused our change management activities on this intrinsic motivation – that staff will be interested in GCDOCS and will be motivated by curiosity, interest and sheer gratification of using a new program? If we could recognize that there is joy in the activity, and that as humans, we have a desire to get better and better at something that matters, perhaps we could encourage staff to use GCDOCS because they want to, rather than because they have to.

Pink continues to explain that this kind of behaviour requires three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. If we can give the staff some autonomy for how they choose to use GCDOCS – using their rules rather than external rules set up by us – we may see more interest in using the program. If we can encourage and support mastery, without worrying about success or failure, we may see more expansive use of GCDOCS. Finally, if we can prove purpose that relates to each person, and really and truly reflects their own own human condition, staff may choose to use GCDOCS because it makes sense to them and their lives.

In reading this blog, I see that I can replace “GCDOCS” with anything. If I want to help foster a change; if I want to awaken the motivation of colleagues, friends, anyone, then I must recognize (and celebrate) that motivation is intrinsic and doesn’t have to be external. I must realize that autonomy, mastery and purpose may speak louder than more time off, an increase in pay, or any other external motivator.

I play the fiddle. I’m not particularly good at it. But I am motivated to play and get better, not by any money or fame I receive (which, of course, I don’t), but because I love it. Like Harlow’s monkeys, I am gratified by the task at hand, and perhaps more by fluke than by practice, I get better.

My motivation is the love of the instrument, and playing with my friends, like Eleanor!

My motivation is the love of the instrument, and playing with my friends, like Eleanor!

My advice to you, dear reader? Get Daniel Pink’s book. Think about what you do – in work, in sport, in pleasure –  why you do it, and how you are motivated. You may become happy with the inherent satisfaction of an activity rather than an external reward. And won’t that be fun???!!!


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