Why More Pay Makes You Less Productive

Last Updated May 10, 2010 1:39 PM EDT

If only I was paid more, I would be motivated to work harder.

Except the evidence shows the contrary to be true. For many types of right brain, creative types of work, providing incentives tied to productivity or speed may cause a drop in output.

This is because a financial carrot causes people to focus and concentrate the mind. This kind of reward works much better for left brain, 20th century tasks where the goal is straight ahead and it's just a matter of doing it. But in a 21st century task that requires creativity to solve or execute, the answer is more likely on the periphery, where the focused mind won't look.

In a recent TED talk, journalist Dan Pink, who has written extensively on motivation, calls this a "mismatch between what science knows and what business does."

To motivate right brain folk, who are not as coin operated, the key is to create jobs that offer intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivators.

"It's an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation," Pink says. "Around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they're interesting, because they are part of something important. And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose."
Watching Pink's very motivating talk, I recalled research done in the 1990s by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, whose work focuses on creativity. She long ago hit on this idea that creative people respond to intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.

The question, says Pink, is when will business catch on?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.