On managing knowledge workers

John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

Have you ever had one of those great experiences where someone brings you information that is so provocative that you vacillate cognitively between the poles of “this is exactly right” and “this is exactly wrong?” These are the ideas that make you really do some serious thinking and often lead to important insights.

Several weeks ago, a colleague brought a YouTube video to a small group meeting.  After watching this video, http://youtu.be/rrkrvAUbU9Y, a spirited conversation among the six persons lasted for more than an hour ensued. The video begins with an overview of a very simple psychological test called the candle experiment and then introduces the idea that traditional pay incentive-based motivation actually hinders performance.

In the video, Daniel Pink introduces the idea that in today’s workforce people are motivated by three elements: mastery, autonomy and purpose. This is where my mind began to vacillate between poles of complete agreement and complete disagreement, having been in many work environments where both extremes are the case. Remembering that F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” I began to parse his conjecture to better understand it. Two things seemed to be key in understanding this idea and explaining my experience of the video.

First, in our society we seem to be fascinated, one might say even obsessed, by group differences. The implied focus of the video is that younger workers are different – the classic GenY, GenX, Baby Boomer comparative differences – and these differences trump old ideas about motivation. However, if we look carefully, this idea may hold very little comparative explanatory power. In fact, a huge literature in the psychological sciences would conclude that in almost all cases individual differences trump group differences.

Consider this hyperbolic, hypothetical situation. Several people have applied for the same job. What criteria should we use to make our decision as who to hire? The persons’ age, gender, race, hair color – these are group differences. Or their training, experience, integrity, interpersonal-skills – these are individual differences. Framed this way the decision seems trivially easy to make.

Why then do we usually discuss differences between groups rather than focus on the differences between individuals? Probably because it’s so much more interesting to talk about these vaguely defined group differences. “Why can’t they be like we were – perfect in every way?” How many times have I fallen into this trap?

A more compelling explanation to describe the outcome of the candle experiment is to attribute the results to a profound change in the nature of work, a cultural difference. For some time now, work has been migrating from manual to mental. The most compelling evidence to illustrate this change is the life-time earnings differences among those with less than a high school education, a high school education and a university education. We are talking about knowledge workers, those people some call the creative class. These are the people who work primarily from their knowledge and experience. They seem to have three characteristics: They use computers in their work, they often work in teams and they are “lightly” managed.

Lay these alongside mastery, autonomy and purpose and you can see the relationship.  My father worked in a smelter and did roughly the same job for 30-plus years.  In the past 30-plus years I have had a variety of “jobs,” all of which required me to learn new knowledge, skills and work in new environments. Therefore, mastery is central to the modern definition of motivation.

Working in an environment where one is lightly managed, often by someone who cannot perform the job you are doing, illustrates the importance of autonomy, or as some have been calling it for many years, personal responsibility. Finally, the most powerful definition of a team begins “A team is a small group of people who share a common purpose…”

Recently I saw an article, which noted that the unemployment rate of women is lower than for men in every demographic category. The number of women enrolled in university now exceeds the number of men. One could infer from this that in modern societies, having big muscles confers no advantage. On the contrary having great neurons is of more benefit.

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.