© James T. Stodd, 2017
Positive Psychology, Employee Engagement and Rewards (Part I)
By James T. Stodd, MS, SPHR, SHRM-SCP
January 5, 2017
This article is about the positive psychology movement, workplace motivation (aka “employee engagement”) and rewards, particularly the use of “pay”. Before getting into a detailed analysis, let’s start with some understanding of what positive psychology is about. Positive psychology is an extension of the humanistic psychology movement founded in the 1950’s. Its aim is to use scientific understanding and effective intervention to aid the achievement of a “satisfactory life.” Psychologist Christopher Peterson succinctly summarized this emerging field saying “positive psychology studies what makes life most worth living.”1
This humanistic approach offers a much broader and wholistic perspective of human behavior than the psychoanalytic and behaviorist schools of thought that previously dominated the field of psychology. In addition, this rather new science has influenced not only academic researchers and practicing psychologists, but has also contributed to the thinking, research and teaching of humanistic-oriented economists, sociologists and other behavioral scientists who are finding broad application to almost each and every aspect of human life. Included in its applications are how we think about work, what factors best engage and motivate employees, and how business leaders can better shape business environments to encourage greater engagement, productivity and employee satisfaction.
Today, perhaps the most known and widely read work summarizing some of the key findings and conclusions of positive psychology when applied to the workplace can be found in Daniel Pink’s New York Times best seller…Drive.2 While Pink is not a behavioral scientist himself, he has done an excellent job of summarizing some of the findings and conclusions of prominent researchers like Edward Deci, Teresa Amabile, Alfie Kohn, Richard Ryan and others who ascribe to the positive psychology and humanistic movement. Using that research as background, he has formulated a set of assumptions, conclusions and principles (e.g., an “operating system”) that he argues better reflects today’s reality and values with regard to employee motivation, engagement and rewards. Here are some of his key points (re-ordered and paraphrased for brevity):
1. Many of the practices of current business organizations were derived from and for a prior era when work was largely mechanistic. These practices are now outdated and inconsistent with what science (via positive psychology and the humanistic movement) is teaching us about what truly motivates, engages and satisfies people with respect to their work and their workplace.
2. Today a growing number of people are largely motivated and engaged by the “intrinsic” rewards associated with doing creatively challenging work that is both interesting to them, and which they can or will learn to do well, rather than “extrinsic” rewards like money, fame, or fortune.
3. The intrinsic rewards with the most potential for driving motivation, engagement, and performance, and thereby rendering the greatest satisfaction, are released in environments that encourage a) autonomy (aka “empowerment”), b) mastery, and c) purpose.
4. When business organizations attempt to motivate employees by tying “if-then” extrinsic rewards to work that is already intrinsically motivating, they risk diminishing that intrinsic motivation and can negatively impact performance, creativity, and even upstanding ethical behavior.
5. Despite the intrinsic rewards associated with meaningful work, people do have to earn a living. As such, if someone’s “baseline rewards” (salary, contract payments, benefits and perks) aren’t adequate or equitable, that person’s focus will be on the unfairness of the situation and the anxiety associated with the circumstance.
6. Therefore, the best use of money (as a motivator) is to pay people enough to take the issue of “money” off the table. This is particularly the case when the employee is performing “heuristic” work that requires creativity, experimenting with possibilities, and devising novel solutions, versus “algorithmic” work where one can follow an established set of instructions leading down a single pathway to one conclusion.
7. With the issue of “money” taken off the table, employers are advised to improve motivation and engagement by designing business models, organizational structures, employment practices and job assignments in a way that serves to increase the amount of worker autonomy and empowerment (including flexible work schedules and settings), opportunities for professional growth, development and mastery, and by maximizing “purpose” simultaneous with maximizing “profits.”
Now I gotta tell you, I really love almost everything Daniel Pink has said in this book. He paints a picture of a working person that many of us can identify with, and presents opportunities for transforming the workplace that promise to benefit both employees and their employers. In addition, he has done a masterful job of bridging the gap between the world of academic research and a popular audience by the way he is able to analyze, synthesize, integrate and convey complex information. As such, I would recommend Drive as a “must read” to any person with a serious interest in employee motivation, engagement and performance. Furthermore, I believe Pink’s summary of the positive psychology and humanistic movement generally conveys a set of principles that would serve businesses well to consider in terms of how they design organizations, work environments, work processes and the very jobs people perform.
All that being said, and despite my high regard for Daniel Pink, his book, and the researchers that contributed to his conclusions, I must seriously disagree with some of the conclusions proponents of positive psychology offer regarding the importance of “extrinsic rewards”, and “contingency pay” in particular. In short, I think they’ve got it wrong and need to rethink their position based upon a newer, broader and more reality-based set of information. I’ll give you my reasons in Part II of this series, and then you can reach your own conclusion.
1 Peterson, Christopher, What is Positive Psychology, and What Is It Not?; Psychology Today.com, May 18, 2008 (see https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-good-life/200805/what-is-positive-psychology-and-what-is-it-not)
2 Pink, Daniel, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.