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Workplace needs new employee incentives

Jay MacDonald Let's take a break from finance, home mortgage rates, credit scores and insurance to consider a fundamental flaw in the American business model.

I'm talking about carrots.

Not those orange scrapings atop your Cobb salad, but extrinsic rewards like annual bonuses, those coveted carrots of the carrot-and-stick (C&S) motivational model that begat the rat race in the first place.

“Not only is carrot-and-stick outdated, it can be dangerous.”

Daniel Pink says those carrots have not only outlived their usefulness; they're clogging our creative arteries as well.

Pink thinks American workers and their employers would both benefit by a shift away from the dulling external motivators and toward a corporate culture that harnesses deeper human desires for autonomy, mastery and purpose. More about what that might look like in a moment.

Part pragmatist, part provocateur, Pink is a postmodern, PBS-pedigreed paradigm repairman out to reshape the very DNA of the workplace.

His first book, "Free Agent Nation," was about how we work. His second, "A Whole New Mind," was about what we do at work. His latest, "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," is about why we work.

The surprising truth? We're not all that fond of carrots.

Veering off course

Pink cites four decades of scientific research that show that humans are not simply motivated by cash, but also by higher intellectual and emotional needs as well. In fact, in controlled studies, extrinsic rewards were shown to reduce performance and inhibit creativity.

The rat race started to veer off course back in those pre-"Mad Men" days of the 1950s.

"The whole ethic was very much this idea that human beings are automatons; 'I'll see your Pavlov and raise you a B.F. Skinner,'" Pink says, invoking two giants of operant conditioning, the process of changing behavior through reward and punishment.

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Carrot-and-stick worked fine to motivate people to perform the simple, repetitive assembly-line tasks that built 20th century America. But since the computer automated many of those tasks, C&S has been largely ineffective in stimulating the creativity we need in the information age.

Pink says not only is carrot-and-stick outdated, it can be dangerous.

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