So as I wrote about here and here, Dan Pink shows in his book Drive that carrot-and-stick motivation doesn’t produce better quality work from lawyers and other conceptual thinkers. Yikes.

Egg with face being cracked on frying pan
If-then monetary rewards, like law firm mega-bonuses, create the brain of a drug addict. Just what you went to law school for, to hang with the addicts, right?

Even more horrifying, if you live and die by the quest for money as your sole reward for work, are the findings that the if-then money carrot can (and often does) create incentives for some really bad behavior. You don’t even have to look at research to know this is true, because corporate history is littered with examples:

  • Enron’s lofty revenue goals precipitated a race to meet them by any means available, so employees took numerous ethical and accounting shortcuts;
  • The financial sector’s collapse of 2008, caused by chasing short-term gains and ignoring long-term market weaknesses;
  • Ford’s maniacal focus to produce a car at a specific price point, by a specific time, at a specific weight, led to omitting crucial safety checks, and gave us the Ford Pinto.

If-then financial incentives, like those outsized bonuses, can also create addiction. Seriously. Not to alcohol or drugs, but to the incentive itself. As Pink puts it, “cash rewards and shiny trophies can provide a delicious jolt of pleasure at first, but the feeling soon dissipates—and to keep it alive, the recipient requires ever larger and more frequent doses.”

You know instinctively this is true, if you work in BigLaw. Once you’ve gotten a bonus or two, you start expecting it, and stop appreciating it. The only thing that grabs your attention is an even bigger bonus. The problem, of course, is that to give huge bonuses, firms have to get the money from somewhere. And it ain’t gonna be from the partner’s pockets if they can wring yet more hours out of associates. There is no shortage of associates who will play this game, at least for another year, right?

Bonuses Act Like Crack on Lawyer Brains

Here’s the addiction part, and it’s fascinating. Neuroscientist Brian Knutson scanned the brains of healthy volunteers with a functional MRI, which captures images of bodily structures as they work. (So cool!) When participants knew they had a chance to win some cash, a part of brain called the nucleus accumbens was showered with dopamine.

The fascinating part is that the same physiological process, showering the nucleus accumbens with dopamine, happens in drug addicts. As Pink says, “if we watch how people’s brains respond, promising them monetary rewards and giving them cocaine, nicotine, or amphetamines look disturbingly similar.”

We all know that addicts make crazy short- and long-term decisions. Knutson also showed that with if-then rewards, activating the nucleus accumbens predicts “both risky choices and risk-seeking mistakes.” I love Pink’s take on it:

In short, while that dangled carrot isn’t all bad in all circumstances, in some instances it operates similar to the rock of crack cocaine and can induce behavior similar to that found around the craps table or roulette wheel—not exactly what we hope to achieve when we “motivate” our teammates and coworkers.

So it is actually true that as a lawyer, you are often dealing with crazy, dysfunctional behavior, whether or not your colleague has a drug or drinking problem. If they are motivated chiefly by money, they behave like an addict.

Yeah, just the way we all want to spend our days, right?

So What Can Possibly Replace Bonuses? (Hint: Not Money)

At this point, many of you are probably aghast, and wondering how on earth lawyers can be motivated to work if not for the money. And I’m betting you would laugh hysterically if I suggested that law firms drop their bonus plans, lower their salaries, and instead:

  • Give meaningful, timely and useful feedback;
  • Institute useful training and mentoring;
  • Insist on civility between all lawyers at the firm, as well as in lawyer-staff interactions, and fire those who consistently don’t behave well;
  • give associates actual say in which projects they are assigned;
  • Prohibit calling lawyers into the office on weekends and expecting Crackberry responses except for life-and-death (or maybe jail) emergencies; and most radically
  • Penalize lawyers who bill more than 2,000 hours annually, and also penalize their supervising partners.

Let’s call it A Modest Proposal for Lawyers.

What do you think? What would be the single most useful, instrinsically motivating change that law firms could make?

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who took a decade to get over the billable hour mentality once she left law practice. But eventually, sanity won out. Join the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club on Sept. 15, 2011 at 1:30pm ET to discuss Drive and how you can add sanity, aka intrinsic motivation, to your lawyer work and your life. To participate in this free event, dial (209) 647-1000. The access code is 535240# (yes you need to enter the # sign). Or email to get on the Unhappy Lawyers Book Club email list.