Inspiration Doesn’t Come From A Box Of Cocoa Puffs

Companies with hip perks get a lot of press. But research shows that's not the real way to motivate workers.
September 15, 2011

Business owners should not be deceived into thinking that we have to ply employees with free food and yoga classes if we want to create inspiring workplaces—and too bad if you work in a steel mill, a donut shop or a mall-based mass merchandiser, where it’s a bit more difficult to fit an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The simple truth is that while those perks are certainly pleasant, no amount of Cocoa Puffs will make up for abusive bosses, interdepartmental bickering, chronically unrealistic deadlines or out-of-touch management.

In his bestselling book, Drive, Daniel Pink argues that the traditional carrot-and-stick approach to motivation doesn’t work for employees engaged in complex tasks. Intrinsic motivation, he suggests, is unleashed by environments that address three fundamental human desires:

  • Autonomy (control over one’s work)
  • Mastery (getting better at what one does)
  • Purpose (being a part of something bigger)

Taking a page from Dan’s book, a truly inspiring workplace is a work environment that enables the fulfillment of these three needs—and it doesn’t require a yoga studio or a nail salon.

Consider these three examples:


 Long before Google’s vaunted “20 percent time”—in which engineers get to spend 20 percent of their time working on their own projects—3M gave its technical employees 15 percent of their time to do the same thing. The company combined it with Genesis Grants, an internal venture capital fund that distributes money to researchers to develop prototypes, and technology sharing awards, given to those who develop and share new technologies across the firm.


 In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May describes how FAVI, a French designer and manufacturer of copper alloy automotive components, enables employees to strive for mastery at work. FAVI has no central departments—no HR group, no purchasing team, no organizational chart. Instead, the company is organized into teams that essentially work for an individual customer such as Fiat, Volvo or Volkswagen. In this arrangement, equipment, tooling, workspace and process design all rest in the hands of the front line workers, who are free (and encouraged) to experiment and innovate. And they do, often working late into the night to solve complex problems.


Barry Wehmiller, a $1 billion producer of capital equipment, has recorded 21 consecutive years of growth at 19 percent a year. The CEO explains that the company’s adaptation of Toyota’s lean manufacturing philosophy—the Living Legacy of Leadership program—isn’t used as a tool for profitability, but rather as a technique to engage people’s heads and hearts. He states that the company exists to inspire people to embrace their gifts and feel a sense of fulfillment in the process. As one worker says, “we are going to change the world one job at a time.”

In fact, if you look around, you’ll find plenty of companies that have created inspiring workplaces without fancy trappings. WL Gore has no titles, self-managed teams and a deep belief in the individual to do what’s right for the company. Atlassian software has FedEx Days every quarter, in which programmers work around the clock on any project they wish and then compete to have it included in the company’s ongoing products. Ericsson uses a system for collaborative idea management called IdeaBoxes to allow employee creativity to flourish in the service of continuous improvement.

So let’s get past the gee-whiz, superficial trappings of inspiring workplaces. Sure, the free donuts and dry cleaning are nice. But providing an environment that unleashes employees’ intrinsic motivation is far better.

Here’s what you can do to learn more about these ideas:

  • Read Dan Pink’s book Drive and watch his TED talk.
  • Explore the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX) website, an open project aimed at reinventing management.
  • Learn more about the Toyota production system (lean manufacturing). Focus in particular on the oft-ignored “respect for people” aspect of the system. Jeff Liker’s The Toyota Way and Jim Womack’s Lean Thinking are excellent places to start.

OPEN Cardmember Dan Markovitz is the President of TimeBack Management (@timeback), which applies lean manufacturing principles to individuals and teams to dramatically improve performance.

Image credit: munickat