Motivation and the Survival of the Fittest

I’ve watched this Dan Pink video on YouTube, illustrated by RSA, many times.  The video is often used in Agile courses to illustrate that we are not motivated as simply by the carrot and stick as previously thought, but may do better work when self-directed.  Pink refers to studies that have proven this, studies carried out by the likes of MIT and Carnegie Mellon.

In the video, Pink does not go into much detail about the animal instinct to survive and how that plays into our motivations.  He’s focused, really, on the working environment.

Lately I’ve interacted with someone a bit conservative at work and this person would not agree with Dan Pink.  His viewpoint, rather, is that we all have an animal instinct to survive and it is this instinct that causes people to have the motivation to cheat, steal and generally be untrustworthy when it comes to work.  His is an argument against the self-directed model of Agile and for the command-and-control methods that are more waterfall-like.  If you don’t complete the task I give you, then I will beat you with a proverbial stick (yell at you, not give you a raise, etc.)

And I know I’ve observed that more selfish side of our nature within the context of work.  I’ve had my employees lie to me before in small ways to get what they want.  For instance, once someone wrote me a long email about symptoms of an illness in order to get an extra day of vacation on a tropical island.  Later I overheard that person talking and discovered the incident was, in fact, untrue.

So I searched around on YouTube figuring someone has had to think about this side of our nature specifically in terms of how this might affect our ability to work in teams, what it means for leadership and how leaders relate to teams, and so on.

I didn’t come across exactly what I was seeking, but in the search, I  found the video below, for TED, in which Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely talks about “Why We All Think It’s OK to Cheat and Steal (Sometimes).”  Now, what’s even more interesting is that (I think you say Professor?) Ariely has had a true life-and-death, survival event. He was caught in an accident when in the Israeli army that gave him burns over 70% of his body.  He talks about this below in relationship to the fact that we all need to *test our assumptions.*

The second video featuring Professor Ariely, for FORA.TV, is “We’re All Predictably Irrational.”  In both of these videos, Professor Ariely references studies that he’s undertaken that had interesting results, results that are not what we might assume they’d be.

OK, so both of these thinkers, Ariely and Pink, question the conventional wisdom about “how we are wired.”  Now let’s hear other viewpoints about how we are wired.

In this Huffington Post article, End of War VS Animal Instinct to Survive, David Ropeik (also author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts):

One of the things those initial changes do is magnify the power of instinct over reason as our response to the risk continues. We not only use instincts first and thinking second, but in an ongoing risk response, we use emotions and instinct more than reason. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, who helped pioneer the research that identified the amygdala as the part of the brain where fear begins, says of the neural systems that control our response to risk, “While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than the connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.” (p. 19, the Emotional Brain,

This leads me to believe that in a study, which is what Pink and Ariely reference in their videos above, participants may not have such a sense of risk because, well, it’s “just a study.”  I don’t know this, but I question it.  You’re not going to lose your job if you don’t succeed in either of the tests they conducted.  There’s not that much at risk.  I also wonder about the age of the study participants.  Do younger people have “less to lose” because they’ve not spent years building up a life?

Perhaps it is hard to predict when we’re going to think there’s a lot at risk. For instance, we may view not responding to a Blackberry message instantaneously as contributing to a possibility we could lose our jobs. In fact, in this article, Time Magazine’s Dalton Conley talks about why we jump to read the latest message from our Blackberries.  He says:

We have separate circuits, it turns out, for top-down focus — i.e., when we set our mind to concentrate on something — and reactive attention, when our brain reflexively tunes in to novel stimuli. We obviously need both for survival, whether in the wilds of prehistory or while crossing a street today, but our saturated media universe has perhaps privileged the latter form and is wiring our kids’ brains differently. “Each time we get a message or text,” Anthony Wagner, one of the Stanford study’s co-authors, speculates, “our dopamine reward circuits probably get activated, since the desire for social connection is so wired into us.” The result, he suggests, could be a forward-feeding cycle in which we pay more and more attention to environmental stimuli — Hey, another text! — at the expense of focus.

I also saw an article, but I’ve lost it, that talked about studies showing we react to the new more quickly than focusing on the old information.  But haven’t re-found that article. Will update this post if/when I do find it.

In any case, people also may be worried that “someone more connected” might climb up higher on the corporate ladder, as Mickey Meese writes here for the New York Times.  As a result, we want to react right away.  We don’t want to be thoughtful and wait to think things through. It must all be super-fast.

So why am I connecting all of this information?  Because I think what it all shows is that we have to create custom solutions for circumstances.  Some people will have had life experiences to cause them to react in what appears to be a very cold and selfish way; others will be able to perform communally. This will affect how Agile teams can work.

I still have to figure out another piece of the puzzle, and this relates back to the Big Idea and the Master Creative Mind.  And that is how leadership plays into all of this.  Are we all possible leaders?  Or are some just born, “hard-wired,” to lead and others to follow?  How does this work within an Agile, “self-directed,” context? How can I create a workflows that function most efficiently as a result of all of this?  Do we have to have leaders? More to explore.


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