The Performance Difference

Google is a pretty cool place to work.  It’s cutting edge in innovation, offers perks to drool over with attractive compensation and is full of really smart people.  There is no shortage of people who want to work at Google, evidenced by the fact that it receives one million job applications a year and can be more selective than Harvard.

As a result of its desirability and selectivity, it’s a fair assumption that Goggle has the cream of the crop of employees.  Leaders from the outside looking in might think of Google as a leadership utopia – a wonderland filled with best in class talent competing to work there, motivated to bring their best because of the dollar signs dangling in front of them.  A reason that leaders who think this way are in the outside of Google looking in could rest partly in the fact that Google understands what they do not about motivating people. Even at Goggle, a magnet for attracting top talent to exciting opportunities, leaders understand that the performance difference rests not in the promise of external rewards, but offering the conditions for intrinsic ones.

Rewards from the Inside Out

Here’s a summary of a whole lot of research: Our motivation is at its peak when we are engaged in something we chose that we love. There is a strong relationship between our level of motivation and our performance. Even on those occasions when we are motivated but not very good, motivation acts as the catalyst to get better.

The joy returned when you master something or just get better at it is intrinsic motivation. It’s the gold star of satisfaction because you did it- you dreamed it, you planned it, you worked on it, you saw it through – that creates a renewable resource of motivation that powers good performance.

If it’s That Easy…

If intrinsic motivation is as easy as opening doors for people to apply their talents to areas they love, and motivation fuels improved performance, then why don’t more leaders and organizations do it? Here’s why: too many of us confuse complexity with excellence, control with outcome and measurement with results. Too many leaders believe that if they don’t tell people what to do, how to do it and when to do it that it won’t get done. Too many organizations think that if they just reward past performance, they’ll get better future performance. (They should read their own marketing literature that informs us that “past performance doesn’t guarantee future results”, but I digress.)

Creating the engine of intrinsic motivation IS as easy as allowing people some level of autonomy over their work and opportunities to master areas of special interest. Goggle, an organization that has models and measures for just about everything, knows this. It’s why they allow their prized engineers 20 percent of their time to work on projects of their choice. Recently, Google’s Manager of the Year, Farzad  “Fuzzy” Khosrowshani explained that he improved loyalty and moral on his Google Docs team by allowing employees even more discretionary time to work on projects of their choice. If Google, with its deep pockets and lavish perks, knows that even it can’t drive performance through extrinsic motivation alone, why do so many others keep trying?

Ideas to Create the Performance Difference

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, describes several practical ways leaders and organizations everywhere can tap into the intrinsic motivation that rests inside each employee and unleash it onto improved performance. A few are listed below to get you started.

1. Ask your associates what they really want to be good at.  Help them find ways they can do more of it. Don’t hand them the list of competencies from HR that tells them what the organization wants them to be good at, but ask what they want to be good at. Here’s an example. I once worked with an analyst who had the responsibility for data maintenance, analytics and reports. During a conversation, she shared that she had a journalism degree and experience as a reporter for a local paper. She loved to write as a hobby. I asked her to write up summaries of the analysis she produced like “special investigative stories.” She looked for opportunities to take on other department communications. She enjoyed the challenge, was better at it than I was, and was motivated to do well. It was a classic win/win outcome.

2. Carve out time for associates to think about how they could improve their jobs or contribute differently. Ask them to share their ideas the next day.  Daniel Pink gives several examples of creative managers “clearing the day” for associates to “advise up” on how they could improve performance or results. The only rule is that associates have to present their ideas the next day. Other than that, associates can work where they want, on what they want, with whom they want. In a related idea, Pink talks about a customer service manager who periodically manages customer calls for an hour so her associates can take the time to develop ideas about how they could improve performance. The manager gets much better insight into the experience of her associates and receives good ideas about improving performance. All for a couple of hours.

3.  Just get out of the way.  Assume your associates are capable and interested in doing well. They (gasp) may even know more about their jobs than you do. As a leader, focus 80 % of time on why their contributions matter and 20% on how the work should be done.  Better yet, ask associates to tell you how they’ll deliver.  Care less that someone works differently and care more that his or her performance continually gets better.

We do not have to look at cutting edge employers like Google and wonder “if only.” We can get the same performance momentum by realizing that what really motivates associates is autonomy over their work, the opportunity to find something they enjoy and the pride that comes with just getting better. And, accepting that some things that are easy don’t have to be so hard.


Examples of the “whole lot of research” on motivation:

Blitzer, J., Schrettl, W. and Schroeder, P.J.H. (2007). Intrinsic motivation in open software development. Journal of Comparative Economics (35) 7, 4

Frey, B. (1997) Not Just for the Money: An Economic Theory of Personal Motivation. Burlington, VT: Edward Elger.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Penguin Books.

Google Reference:

Walker, J. ( 2012). Google’s Algorithms for Talent. Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2012, page B1.

4 thoughts on “The Performance Difference

    • Great question. My hunch ( and only that) is because design thinking permeates everything they do. If they view “engaging associates” as a design opportunity, then they follow a process that works for them. Google also designed the “perfect boss” (or something like that) based on an internal process.

      Why do you think Google got it right?

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