How Pigeons Shaped the Modern Office

June 26, 2015 Zach Saul

In the US, when businesses and their owners tackle complex problems they look for practical solutions. Managers are asking: What’s in for me? How can I get a return on my investment? These are fundamental questions paramount to the success of any business. So what truly motivates the cubicle dweller? How can managers best incentivize behaviors that benefit their business?

what do pigeons have to do with motivation?80 years ago a psychologist named B.F Skinner was asking some eerily similar questions. Skinner did what anyone would do: he trained a flock of pigeons to peck in specific patterns by dispensing a tasty reward when they performed the right behaviors and withholding one when they didn’t. Skinner concluded that people are motivated by their environments and workers behave in response to rewarding stimuli.

What do pigeons have to do with the American workplace? The pragmatism, and financially driven thought that defines the American workplace is deeply rooted in Behaviorism. It’s a school of thought that’s incredibly exciting to executives because it makes it simple to observe their employee’s behaviors. Managers could finally incent specific behaviors that benefit the company.

Skinner’s conclusion didn’t sit well with everyone — ten years later Psychologist Abraham Maslow wondered if internal motivations affected people as profoundly as rewards. After hundreds of hours of interviews he concluded incentives were only the tip of the iceberg: in order to reach their full potential employees need emotional fulfillment, not just tangible incentives. The American employee needs feelings of belonging, love, and high self-esteem to succeed. He called this pyramid a “Hierarchy of Needs”. The trouble for the modern business in adopting Maslow’s Humanist practices is that they aren’t backed by hard data.maslows-hierarchy-of-needs

So how can we make sense of this divide in the American workplace? If employees truly are a company’s greatest asset, what’s the best way to get the most out of them? Rewards and recognition are a terrific start, but creating a culture of responsibility is perhaps even more important. Ricardo Smelter (CEO Semco) says:



 The fundamental shift businesses need to make is: instead of asking “how [can we] motivate others?”, we should be asking “how [can we] create conditions where we motivate ourselves?”.

Successful companies utilize incentive programs, but ultimately are comprised of employees incented by intrinsic motivations.

Nobody has the time to sit down with each employee and record a detailed report of their hopes, dreams and insecurities like Maslow did, but there are tangible steps American offices can take. Managers should hire trustworthy employees and create a workplace where it’s safe to tell the truth. In addition they should strive to recognize behaviors that not only increase ROI, but those that spur personal and professional growth as well. Your company’s culture should promote selfless behaviors—and the expression of opinions in an appropriate manner, especially unpopular opinions.

In return managers can and should expect their employees to be accountable. When employees are held accountable for their work, they vie for the respect of their peers and managers instead of rewards alone.

“Intrinsic motivation is destroyed when work is reduced to a mere economic transaction”.

Peter Block (Thought Leader on Management)

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About the Author

Zach Saul

Zach Saul is a Graphic Designer, Content Writer, and Marketer for

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