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Motivating IT: Dump Bonuses and Low Base Salaries; Pay Fairly and Well; Ratchet Up Autonomy

Educause meeting keynote speaker Daniel Pink offers some counterintuitive approaches to motivating employees.

Are you taking the wrong approach to motivating the IT team at your college or university? You might be, if you are using traditional and intuitive approaches to rewarding behavior. That is according to Daniel Pink, the keynote speaker at this week's Educause annual conference in Indianapolis.

Leading off the conference of more than 7,000 technology executives and educators, Pink highlighted some behavioral science research that questions the conventional wisdom about employee motivation, and he offered some suggestions about how that could lead to a new way of interacting with employees in higher education.

Motivational Tactics Based on Ideology, Not Evidence
Pink, the author of "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," said that the idea that if you reward a behavior you get more of it doesn't hold true as often as you would think. He said that in some studies of tasks that required even rudimentary cognitive skills, larger rewards led to poorer performance. He said universities are under pressure to run themselves "more like businesses," and pay employees low base salaries with bonuses for performance may be doing themselves a disservice.

"That is not based on evidence; it is based on ideology," he said.

He said money does matter as a motivator, but more in the sense that people want to be treated fairly. If someone has the same training and experience and is doing the same work as you but is getting paid more, that is will de-motivate you. "You should strive to pay fairly and well," he said.

Management and Autonomy
Pink said we often take the term "management" too seriously. He called it a technology for organizing people from the 1850s. Citing some recent survey statistics about poor employee engagement levels (five in 10 not engaged; two in 10 actively disengaged), Pink called this a huge economic problem for the country and argued that it is because we are using this 19th century approach to leadership.

He challenged the audience to ask others at the conference about the best boss they ever had. "I bet they won't say this: He or she was amazing, breathing down my neck all day and almost pathologically controlling." He argued that higher ed IT leaders should ratchet up the autonomy employees have over their tasks, time and team. Employees with more sovereignty are more likely to be engaged in their work, he said. "This self-direction could offer a competitive advantage to colleges and universities over their private-sector counterparts," he said.

Pink gave examples of employers that are starting to carve out free time for autonomous research or teamwork.

Avoid Creating a 'Feedback Desert'
Turning to evaluations, he said research suggests that the single biggest motivator turns out to be whether people feel that they are making progress. "That depends on feedback, and most workplaces are feedback deserts," he said. The traditional performance review, which he called a kabuki theater with your boss, is not helpful, and he said those in the millennial generation find it especially unsettling. Your goal as a leader is to make their workplace as rich in feedback as the outside environment is. That is why companies such as Adobe and GE are getting rid of performance reviews.

Pink suggested shifting to weekly one-on-one meetings, with a twist. You might ask how their work is going and what resources they need for a few weeks in a row, but then the twist would be to shift to asking about their longer-term goals or what you can do as an executive to help remove barriers to their progress.

He also said people are always looking for the greater purpose — to understand why their work is making a difference. So Pink recommended having fewer conversations about how to do something and more conversations about why the team is doing it.  Colleges and universities, with their humanistic tradition, have a strong purpose already built-in rather than just a profit motive. He suggested using that to your advantage in motivating staff members.

New Leadership at Educause

The Indianapolis conference also marks a transition in Educause's leadership. John O'Brien is the nonprofit association's new president and CEO, replacing Diana Oblinger. O'Brien previously served as senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU), the fifth largest higher education system in the country. Prior to this role, he served as president of North Hennepin Community College from 2010 to 2013.

To honor Oblinger's contributions and leadership to the higher education information technology community, Educause is establishing the Diana G. Oblinger Innovation Forum, which is dedicated to exploring technology's ever-evolving role in higher education as reflected in emerging trends, innovations, leadership practices, and business models.  

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.

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