Higher pay makes us worse

Should we encourage people to be creative? The correct answer is probably “yes”.

Should we reward people for being creative? Again, the correct answer is probably ‘yes’.

The trouble is that rewards don’t work for creative tasks. When we are being rewarded for doing better, we tend to get trapped in our existing ways of thinking and pursue solutions within our perception of the ‘rules’. And creativity is so often about breaking the rules – about thinking outside the box.

In the video clip below, Dan Pink cites researchers from the Fed Reserve finding that while tasks involving only mechanical skill would yield better performance with higher rewards, but where “even rudimentary cognitive skill” was involved, higher rewards led to people doing worse. Low and medium rewards yielded the same level of performance but high rewards led to worse performance.

Higher pay makes you work harder. But doesn’t make you better.

Higher pay leads to worse performance if you have to think.

It might have something to do with functional fixedness. Stemming from gestalt psychology researchers, this looks at how trapped we are at thinking of something as having a single function. Like being able to use a box as a platform rather than just as a box. Functional fixedness, it seems, is exacerbated by extrinsic rewards.

Maybe it’s a good thing that Australia’s Prime Minister has decided to not give himself a pay rise.

High performance comes from work where we enjoy autonomy, where we can experience a sense of mastery, and where we can feel a sense of purpose.

Geniuses tend to be motivated by intrinsic motivators – the sense of mastery rather than the accumulation of money. After all, if you’re focused on the reward, it’s hard to be focused on doing the task in front of you as well as you can.

It’s like the story of the man who was so busy chopping down a tree that he never thought to take a moment to sharpen his axe. And that guy certainly wouldn’t have time to put down his axe and head to the store to pickup a chain saw.

And that’s like the girl with the Rubik’s cube – who struggled whether to give up her completed side that was stopping her from solving the puzzle.

When we’re so busy doing, it’s really hard to do well.

How well does your current work line up?

Are you giving yourself enough time to be the genius that you could be?