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Rewards, Control and Open Source

© October 2004 Tony Lawrence

Referencing: Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator

This is an interesting study that claims to show that getting paid for work can diminish the quality of the job. That, of course, is very interesting in the light of open source development.

People have often assumed that there must be some reward mechanism at work: peer recognition, some amount of fame, etc. But this suggests that the reward can be entirely internal, that doing the job is reward enough. Even more interesting, they say:

There is general agreement, however, that not all rewards have the
same effect. Offering a flat fee for participating in an experiment
- similar to an hourly wage in the workplace - usually does not
reduce intrinsic motivation. It is only when the rewards are based
on performing a given task or doing a good job at it - analogous
to piece- rate payment and bonuses, respectively - that the problem

The key, then, lies in how a reward is experienced. If we come to
view ourselves as working to get something, we will no longer find
that activity worth doing in its own right.

That contradicts the ideas of performance bonuses, etc. As an aside, I've always had the opinion that independent contracting is much more satisfying than employment, and this may be why. When you consult or otherwise provide a service, the payment is more disassociated from the work - effectively it reverses the relationship. With employment it's "you do this, and I'll pay you that", while for the independent it is "you pay me this, and I'll do that" - a very subtle distinction, but it may be psychologically important because it reverses who is in control.

The study suggests that control is probably the most important factor in happiness and work satisfaction: the more control you have over your environment, the more your choices matter, the happier you will be. Sadly, many people have very little control of much in their lives, and may have no way to change that condition.

Open Source development does offer that control, which answers the skeptics questions as to why people do this apparently thankless work. But there may be more here: one of the complaints people sometimes have about open source projects is that they can run off on their own, ignoring custom and practise. That plainly is a control issue: the developer is "doing it my way".

Interesting stuff.

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More Articles by © Tony Lawrence

People tend to do their best when they work for themselves and for their own reasons... And the majority of people tend to be not very selfish about things, especially if they are doing what they like to do.

It's just one of those facts of life.


Of course, getting a paycheck is nice -- especially if you have a family to support. Many of the younger computer types who populate the OSS crowd may not have reached that point in their life, so they may not truly understand what motivates a lot of people to show up for work each day.

I'm self-employed and I have to admit I do this computer thing because I like working with computers. I also like being able to maintain some degree of control over my activities. Plus the satisfaction of a job well-done is a substantial reward in and of itself, especially when a client compliments me for servicing his/her needs in a professional and timely manner. There's a certain rush in flipping on the switch for the first time and seeing your handywork come to life and do what it is supposed to do. Even though I've installed hundreds of systems over the years, I still get that rush when everything pops to life.

However, in the final analysis, we all work for a living -- key word being living -- not for psychological strokes. If I were independently wealthy, I wouldn't need to work for a living, and thus I could find a thousand and one other things to occupy my time. I'm sure computers would still be front and center, though.


---October 29, 2004

Hey, I didn't say anything about not making money. Money is a big motivator, and that's what I work for too!

Being poor sucks! But I know I do a much better job doing something I like then something I hate.

After all, the journey is the destination in life.


---October 29, 2004

Right. And the journey can end rather suddenly. My attitude for many years now is that time is much more important than money - I need income, but I don't concentrate on that as much as I focus on time with my wife and family. It can be hard sometimes, because I can devote too little attention to work and then have some unexpected bills pop up and have to hustle for a bit, but I really try to keep quality time when I can. Not always easy :-)


"...I can devote too little attention to work and then have some unexpected bills pop up and have to hustle for a bit..."

I have been "guilty" of that numerous times. I really like to work, but I also like to goof off, and it's sometimes hard to reconcile the two. Then, of course, there's my wife, who think I spend way too much time peering into a video monitor...she just doesn't understand the fascination of getting a computer to do your bidding.



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