The Future of Work: Nurturing Employee Creativity Amid Automation

Yvonne Chen

VP of Marketing, Udemy for Business

February 27, 2017

“There is a big disconnect between what science knows and what business does.”

– Daniel Pink

In a world where automation will replace more routine jobs, companies must pay attention to new research that supports developing the human traits that cannot be replaced with technology. Building up the creative muscles of your employees and investing in intrinsic motivators will be key to the workforce of the future.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink studies two basic kinds of human motivation — extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is based on external rewards and punishments. People are motivated to do good work by either a potential salary raise or the fear of being fired. This kind of motivation works well for more process-oriented jobs like factory work.

The other kind of motivation, and what I’m most passionate about is intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is based on the innate satisfaction and stimulation people feel in accomplishing a creative, complex task. In this case, rewards aren’t the motivator. Instead, the actual problem or task is the key motivator. Intrinsic motivation lends naturally to creative roles that involve ingenuity and innovation. But how do you nurture this creativity or natural intrinsic motivation in your employees?

Cognitively demanding roles require us to move away from the carrot and stick

Here’s the thing. To build our intrinsic motivation muscles, we need to get our heads out of Motivation 2.0, also known as extrinsic motivation. Motivating people with rewards and punishments may have worked well in the factory era, but it doesn’t work well in today’s innovation era where every job is cognitively demanding.

In fact, Pink argues leading behavioral science research shows that rewards can actually hinder creativity and innovation. In experiments with both monkeys and people, scientists found that the subjects tackled complex puzzles at a higher rate of success when they weren’t given any rewards because they were focused on solving the problem in front of them. When rewards were introduced, both monkeys and humans lost their intrinsic enjoyment and interest. For example in one experiment, two separate groups of paid and unpaid people were given a Soma puzzle cube to solve over a three-day period. What happened? Although rewards gave an initial boost to motivation, over time, the paid group lost interest in solving the puzzle while the unpaid group continued to gain satisfaction in solving the puzzle (a.k.a. intrinsic motivation) and were more successful in ultimately cracking the code.

The conclusion? Short-term rewards hamper out-of-the-box thinking. Rather than induce creative problem solving, shortsighted rewards encourage people to focus on reaching the finish line quickly (and sometimes unethically). For example, sales quotas and commission-based pay can cause people to “game the system.” Pink highlights Sears’ auto repair staff that overcharged customers with unnecessary car repairs just to meet quota. And remember the not too-distant 2008 Financial Crisis? Investment bankers were more motivated by end-of-year bonuses rather than thinking about the long-term health of their customers and the economy.

In today’s world where innovation determines whether companies win or lose, we must rethink how we are helping our employees flex their creative muscles.

Create the right work environment to harness intrinsic motivation

In order to tap into the intrinsic motivation that fuels people to tackle complex problems, we need to create an environment that nurtures natural curiosity and creativity. Think back (just for a second) about the times you felt the most innovative. Was it when your boss was breathing down your neck and waving a stick? Was it when your mom or dad required you to do something? My guess is probably not. Instead, people excel when left to their own devices to explore, collaborate, understand, and take action.

Pink outlines three key elements that must be present to support intrinsic motivation in the workplace:

  • 1. Autonomy: The most innovative companies have created an environment where their employees can work when and how they want. Management isn’t walking around to see if people are in their seats. They are giving their employees free rein to do their best work.

  • 2. Mastery: In intrinsic motivation, the pursuit of mastery is an essential part of solving problems. The feeling of challenge and stretching oneself is part of the joy or intrinsic motivation people gain from tackling and mastering complex tasks.

  • 3. Purpose: Autonomous people working towards mastery are high performers. But add in the third key ingredient—purpose—and you have the perfect inspiration. If these high performers feel like they are working towards a higher objective, they automatically get a jolt of motivation. Think of open source engineers working without pay because they were motivated by the larger goal of providing free and open software for anyone to use.

How to build intrinsic motivation at your company

Based on Pinks’ three key elements that support intrinsic motivation, here are some of the great ways you can strengthen the creative muscles at your company.

  • Hackathons enable autonomy: Giving employees the autonomy to work on a project that solves a problem they are innately interested in has brought innovation to many companies. For example, when I was working at Facebook, a couple of engineers built a tool that helped translate the entire site into several different languages in 24 hours. (Watch the Facebook video here). In our Udemy Hackathons, employees come up with the problems they want to solve, build their own teams, and transform their idea into reality, all in a 48-hour time window.

  • A mission provides purpose: Here at Udemy, our mission is to improve lives through learning. Having such a large and compelling vision goes a long way to inspire people to continuously improve the product and content we deliver to users around the world. And our mission inspires people because it is deeply rooted in our founder, Eren Bali’s, personal story. Eren grew up in rural Turkey and was educated in a one-room schoolhouse. One day, his parents made a critical decision that changed his life. Instead of spending their hard-earned money on a family vacation, they bought a family computer. With that one decision and one computer, Eren taught himself Advanced Math and Science via informal chat forums on the Internet. Shortly thereafter, he realized his innate gift for math and science. He became an International Math Olympiad Champion and later, studied computer science at university. It was from this experience that Eren created Udemy. He wanted to ensure everyone in the world could learn—regardless of where they lived.

  • Continuous feedback delivers mastery: At Udemy we seek to build a safe and nurturing environment that encourages ongoing feedback. Instead of one annual performance review, our managers have recurring weekly 1:1 meetings with their direct reports. Our “uprops” program is a successful and engaging way for employees to continuously and publicly give shouts-outs to their peers and leaders who have demonstrated excellence in our key values: LET’S GO (Learn, Empathize, Take Ownership, ‘nnovate, Show Passion, Get Stuff Done, and Open Up).

Learning enables all three elements—autonomy, purpose, and mastery

At Udemy we believe in giving people the time and space to learn what they want when they want. We also know that learning something new everyday builds creativity and is an innate part of being human. That’s why we wholeheartedly support learning at Udemy—for personal and professional reasons. Encouraging learning builds the intrinsic motivation muscle, and has enabled several people to accomplish complex projects and make pivotal career changes.

In this new world where creativity and problem solving are the skills that matter, what is your company doing to tap into your employees’ creative skills to build their intrinsic motivation muscles?

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at

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