Google's magic motivation juice?

What moves employees to invest more emotional spirit into their jobs — and their organizations? Is it possible for leaders to “motivate” innovation? Do bigger monetary rewards drive people to ratchet up their output?

These are hotly debated questions that have kept industrial psychologists, motivational speakers and perplexed CEOs busy for years. The debate recently was turned up a notch with the release of author Dan Pink’s new book, Drive, where he writes about the incentives that motivate individuals and teams to do more.

Pink uses scientific research to dispel the myth that monetary reward motivates best. According to a November 2009 McKinsey Quarterly report on how leaders were using non-financial incentives to motivate and reward employees, for example, the three key motivators were praise from immediate managers; attention from leadership, often in the form of one-on-one conversations; and the opportunity to lead a project or task force.

Among such non-monetary incentives, Pink highlights the pursuit of mastery, purpose and autonomy. To my eye, Pink believes open, creative time, where employees are given a percentage of their work week to explore new ideas or products worth developing can be a strong motivator. Software developer Atlassian, for example, was inspired by Google to give select employees a full “FedEx” day each week, during which programmers can brainstorm and “deliver” something new overnight.

On the face of it, such chunks of creative time are a great source of motivation. But I have some hesitations. One problem with loosely-defined “creative time” is that it often lacks accountability.

Employees unleashed with their brain’s right hemisphere and a blank sheet or screen may have autonomy to pursue “The Next Big Thing,” but how can their manager or the company ensure their pursuits ultimately are in the best interests of the company’s mission and values? To the point, how can the company ensure free time is well-spent and ultimately delivers bottom-line ROI, while keeping employees motivated?