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A Visit From the Reward Fairy: What Really Motivates Us at Work?

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A meeting appeared in my diary this week that mystified me - it indicated that someone whose name I didn't recognise was going to turn up in my office to discuss something simply but obliquely headed "Reward". A few stalker-like clicks on the intranet revealed the person in question to be a member of our parent firm's HR department but that was all I could find out.

As perhaps I should have guessed of anyone whose team is called such a positive thing as 'Reward', my visitor from HR turned out to be delightful. And the topic seemed potentially quite delightful too - as I've recently changed my employment status, Ms Reward was here to talk about some new-found employment benefits. This wasn't anything so simple as a salary (that's another person's job), Reward was all the other stuff available to employees like pension contributions, various insurances and a little card that gets me money off high-end pizzas.

Ms Reward told me that she was also carrying out a strategic review of Reward generally. It's all about employee motivation, she said, a complex mix of ensuring that the right things are rewarded to promote the right individual employee behaviour without losing the positive aspects of all pulling together. Worrying that it sounded too good to be true, I assumed the existence of a Punishment team for the bad things I do but apparently not - no Punishment team to pop meetings into my diary.

All Reward and no Punishment sounded good but it got me thinking more about the Reward concept and the company I run within the group. The core of my company is a team of professionals who have chosen not to be employees but to work on a more flexible freelance basis. On the current definition, that means that they get no Reward at all. They are paid of course but there's no 'employee benefits package' - they have to look after that sort of thing themselves. And yet we have an ever-increasing flood of applications hitting the mat from people with great CVs who actively don't want to be employees - they are rejecting the Reward (capital R) for the reward (lower case r) of autonomy and control over their working lives. They seem to have a smile on their faces, even though they don't get a visit from Ms Reward.

It all reminded me of a TED presentation given by Dan Pink that the RSA later turned into an (perhaps even better) animation. Pink's argument questions whether reward has the motivating effect that we hope (and assume) it does. Surprise surprise, it might not. No, once we are talking about non-routine work and once we are past a fair salary, the things that further motivate us are what he calls autonomy, mastery and purpose.

This can be presented as an irrational human reaction but to me it makes sense. After all, once we're paid enough, why is it that we generally want more money (or want the stuff we buy with that money)? I'd say it's ultimately to give us freedom to live life as we wish, pursue our hobbies and generally make room to find our real place in the world, say by engaging with family or friends. That sounds a lot to me like "autonomy, mastery and purpose". So, if we can find a job that allows us to maximise these things within our work (which occupies rather a lot of our whole lives, let's face it) well, then it gives us a direct hit without the Reward middleman.

Is this a licence for businesses to cut off all employee benefits? Did I send Ms Reward off with the message that I'd no time for her various insurances? I have to admit that I didn't - it seems they have become part of what seems fair in the context of an employee relationship and so by then I was expecting them. But are they the thing that motivates me to do my job well, to grow the business and make it great? Of course not, what does that is the space I have to develop my work, to keep on learning and to have an opportunity to build something that I feel proud of when my kids ask me what I've done today - that familiar trio of autonomy, mastery and purpose.