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What will motivate us in the age of AI

A tectonic shift is starting to change the way we operate in this world. It influences how the economy behaves, how companies function, how we work. The shift is driven by the changes in human desire and human motivation — the most important forces that are making the world spin around.

Daniel H. Pink, in his book Drive, speaks of a new type of motivation that is going to be vital in the new economy of automation and artificial intelligence. To compete with AI, people will have to reach very high levels of performance in tasks that AI can’t do well. These include tasks that require value judgment, creativity, and emotional intelligence. According to Drive, in order to be productive and engaged in these creative pursuits, organizations need to upgrade their understanding of human motivation. Research shows that external, carrot-and-stick motivators not only fail to improve but can even damage performance in tasks that require creative and novel thinking. Daniel H. Pink offers a new approach to motivation, which is driven by 3 forces: purpose, autonomy, mastery. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Humans need a higher purpose to be motivated. By this he means something bigger than salary and social security. To be engaged at work, we need to know how we’re making an impact and contributing to something worthwhile, something bigger than ourselves. Only 13% of employees worldwide are fully engaged at work, according to a 2017 Gallup’s study on the State of the Global Workplace. The research outlined in the The Progress Principle concludes that the single most important element of increased engagement is making progress at the work that is meaningful to the people doing it. In a McKinsey quarterly article, the same researchers talk about how managers undermine the feeling of meaning and they outline strategies to maximize the sense of purpose in companies.

We also need autonomy — to be useful contributors to a pursuit, and be able to influence the direction of what we’re doing. A good example of giving employees autonomy is Supercell. It’s a hugely successful Finnish mobile game development company. The company’s CEO Ikka Paananen says “My goal is to be the world’s least powerful CEO. What I mean by this is that the fewer decisions I make, the more the teams are making.” Paananen attributed their success to Supercell’s unconventional organizational structure, which gives total independence to its employees. In his BAFTA lecture, he talks about a company as a platform that enables people to make the biggest possible impact and to be successful.

We also want to experience mastery — we have an innate human desire to become better and better at what we do. Mastery is closely related to flow. Flow is a mental state characterized by high focus, complete immersion into the task, feelings of enjoyment. It’s what athletes call “being in the zone.” McKinsey Quarterly reports a perceived productivity increase by a factor of five during these peak performance experiences by senior executives. Coining the term “flow state”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that experiencing flow leads not only to increased performance, but also to happiness in life.

Indeed, understanding how the new motivation works is crucial for the future of business and governance. A successful organization in the future will excel at articulating purpose, give a lot of autonomy to its employees, and let them pursue purpose in ways that encourage mastery. This will give them an unbeatable competitive advantage. And this is what will distinguish successful companies from the rest.

This story is published in The Startup, where 258,400+ people come together to read Medium’s leading stories on entrepreneurship.

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