5 Questions

By Beau Denton March 1, 2011

Motivating Boomers

Talk of boomers is everywhere these days, and Daniel Pink, a Washington, D.C-based writer (who was scheduled to speak at this month’s canceled Florida Boomer Lifestyle Conference in Sarasota), is watching this demographic as well. His specialty is the changing workplace, and his latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, points to a new kind of motivation for boomers.

Is the conventional wisdom about motivation wrong?

We have this notion that the way you get high performance is to reward the behavior you want and punish the behavior you don’t want. Carrots and sticks. And that’s true in many circumstances, especially in straightforward, mechanical work—turning the same screw the same way on an assembly line, stuffing envelopes, or adding up columns of figures. The problem is that fewer and fewer Americans are doing that—it gets done overseas or by machines. For complex work, where the answer isn’t obvious and you’re not just following an algorithm, those classic motivators don’t work. This is one of the sturdiest findings in social science, and unfortunately one of the most ignored.

How does this affect the workplace?

It explains the incredible decline in employee engagement over the last 30 years.

What makes workers feel motivated?

If you look at the science of motivation at work, it tells us, first, money matters—if you don’t pay people enough, you’re not going to get motivation. But once you pay enough, holding out additional units of money has very little effect on additional units of satisfaction. What matters more is allowing people some measure of self-direction and autonomy, allowing them to get better at something that matters, and infusing what people do with a sense of purpose. Particularly for boomers, that sense of purpose has become much more important, and potentially transformative.

What can businesses do to inspire purpose?

They have to have one. The profit motive is a good thing, but it’s not the only thing. If you’re 63 years old and still working, and the rallying cry inside your company is, “Let’s raise earnings per share three cents this quarter,” that’s not going to get you leaping out of bed in the morning to do something amazing. But if you combine it with the purpose motive, this emerging idea that companies that do the best are companies that stand for something and contribute to the world, then I think you have a powerful recipe: profit and purpose. Boomers especially are gravitating toward purpose, in part because they look at their lives and realize, “This might be my last bite of the apple in the workplace.” Purpose is collaborative. If others are animated by a sense of something larger than themselves, and you find that appealing, then it is contagious.

How is the American business community responding to this?

We’re recognizing that this mania about short-term gain is not the healthiest way. There is a rethinking of what we do, how we do it and why we do it. These kinds of changes happen very slowly, but there is an appetite for [changing] that might not have been there even three or four years ago.

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