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The next step for China’s economy

Last week I briefly showed how if-then rewards are more likely to cause a search for loopholes than actual results. Today I want to explore a second idea from Pink’s book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us;” that relying solely on extrinsic motivation doesn’t promote the kind of business/thinking that China needs to become a world leader.

Firstly, it is important to understand another concept from the book, which Pink calls “motivation 2.0,” this is his name for the carrot and stick approach to leadership. External rewards can give people the incentives they need to act in a certain way, but it doesn’t fully appreciate the complexity of human choices (“motivation 2.0” can be anything from lower power prices at night to encourage more environmentally friendly power consumption all the way to demolishing homes and forcing abortions to comply with the One-Child policy).

China, in many ways, has mastered “motivation 2.0.” Pink even points out that “motivation 2.0” has been shown effective when work relies on repeating simple physical tasks, which for the past 30 years has made China’s economy boom.

Acting out of interests beyond your own immediate reward is what Pink labels “motivation 3.0.” As he points out in his book, “motivation 3.0” isn’t the luxury of developed nations alone, but is switched on once people have met their basic needs.

For the time being, individuals have become too focused on extrinsic rewards to allow for the power of intrinsic motivation. This is partially the result of China’s limited social security system, which forces families to pay largely out of pocket for medical treatment. This then encourages families to push their children into whatever field is the highest paying (or most stable), so that they can act as a sort of insurance for the parents in old age.

This however is starting to change with China’s younger generation that has seen a quality of life unimaginable to their grandparents and is what I believe is largely responsible for China’s current search for a sense of purpose. While evidence of this has been seen already in China’s growing religious groups, companies should also take advantage of this new direction to build a creative economy.

As Pink points out, intrinsic motivation is what fuels companies that rely on creative work, which is a direction that China wants to move in to increase GDP and limit environmental problems. It also creates a workforce that feels more satisfied with their accomplishments (based on studies from the book). However, the need for purpose alone is insufficient; “motivation 3.0” also requires work that allows for mastery, and grants autonomy.

For the time being, Chinese education is designed to destroy these two innate tendencies. Words like “self-guided” and “open-ended” are still completely absent from most Chinese schools (I would guess that less than 5% of Chinese schools are adapting “new” methodology).

Additionally, Chinese companies are wary of these traits as well. The prevailing attitude in the hospital and the schools I’ve worked in has been to always, always, always play it safe. This generally means avoiding any kind of endeavor where failure is even a remote possibility.

For teachers it means strictly following the syllabus, even if many of the activities are useless. Schools also rarely give constructive feedback for teachers, which would aid mastery. At the hospital this same attitude means that doctors only begin research projects handed down from their directors, which limits their enthusiasm for work that could otherwise be enjoyable (the bonuses they receive for publishing also diminishes the intrinsic value of these projects).

For China to reach the next level of development, it needs to move beyond factory work. The Party seems to assume that this advancement simply happens after the country reaches a certain GDP, instead they should be looking to promote people’s innate qualities to drive the economy to the next level.


15 Comments

  1. Kev says:

    I enjoy the tv series “House MD” and my chinese girlfriend is always amazed by the levels of compassion and interest that western doctors display toward their patients. Although i assure her that not all doctors are like the tv show, cant help but admit that chinese doctors are more interested in the hong bao you can afford than finding an effective solution to your problem. There exists a tangible lack of passion with chinese workers at all levels for their careers.No passion = No progress.

    • Rod in China says:

      I know this first hand. I broke my leg a few years back and sat in the waiting room with my busted up leg waiting for my friends to run around making sure everyone got paid before they started. Granted, there was no hong bao involved, but it was a horrible experience.

  2. Lorin Yochim says:

    “Words like “self-guided” and “open-ended” are still completely absent from most Chinese schools”

    If I can suggest a more subtle and more accurate expression of this point, Tom, Chinese schools and the sphere of education are absolutely bathed in words and phrases like these. The extent to which they have been realized in practice is obviously limited. While cultural preferences or habits are clearly at play here, there can be heavy consequences to teaching in other ways, save for those few extremely talented teachers who can pull it off. Having said this, with respect to @Kev’s comment above, Chinese teachers have a tangible passion for their careers at least on par with teachers elsewhere in the world. Their problems are different to be sure, but they seek progress and have achieved it despite terrible material barriers.

    • Kev says:

      It’s sad but I do have to disagree about teachers in China having this “tangible passion”. Teachers in China have a good income, long holidays and (on a sliding scale) the ability to make great contacts and side money as personal tutors. To be frank, considering other occupations here in China, they get it pretty good. They don’t go into the teaching system with the “I can change it” attitude. They don’t want it changed or mustn’t want it changed. If I was in their shoes I wouldn’t want it changed either…imagine reading through 50 different “What do you think about…” essays. Personally it makes it easy if everyone writes the same thing and you just have to take marks off when someone forgets to add something…much easier I suspect.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I understand your disagreement, Kev. Still, more than ten years of experience working with teachers in 18 provinces at levels from city to village has taught me that Chinese teachers are engaged and being engaged in processes of reform. Sometimes they feel frustrated, other times they are outright stymied by poor leadership and material limitations. Your point about class size is an important one, too. Of course some teachers appear to not care and this would relate to questions of motivation at the centre of this post.

        Which leads to a factual problem in your comment. Teachers in China work under a vast array of conditions. Those with the great jobs that you describe are those in first and second tier cities. Even in third tier cities the benefits you describe are highly limited, and many of them flow from the quality of employment of the spouse rather than the teacher. When one gets to these kinds of cities, class sizes are routinely 60-70. Side money is not that great, unless one’s greatest aspiration is to buy an electric bicycle. Village level teachers, many of whom are teaching outside of their subject areas to classes as large as 100, have real problems. I’ve been involved in some recent research on a particularly disturbing phenomenon, that of migrant teachers whose living and working conditions are not unlike those of other migrant labourers we commonly hear about.

      • Kev says:

        This still begs the question of why they become teachers in the first place. My comment about making comparisons between teaching positions and others is still valid. These small towns and villages are often poor as a whole and the teacher’s salary is probably better than most of the village. If you were brought up in a system which is crappy and then voluntarily choose to be part of that system, your goal (if you examine Chinese culture) is to perpetuate it and rarely to fix it.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        My point is neither a universal one nor speculative.

  3. […] The next step for China’s economy (seeingredinchina.com) […]

  4. Lao Why? says:

    M3 cannot be achieved without the notion of empowerment. That concept is soarly missing from China society today and I don’t see it changing any time soon, unfortunately.

    Interestingly, I saw an interview with one of the reporters for Fortune magazine recently talking about their survey for the 100 best companies to work for in America. Although there are many varying reasons that employees found these companies as best, there was one common theme according to the employer: each employee wants to feel like they make a difference; they have some impact and that their work and decisions are valued.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      From a much different theoretical perspective, Boltanski & Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism offers a critique of the new management ideology. Their analysis helps us to understand the necessary conditions for employee “buy-in” described by @Lao Why. Without going on for too long, the conditions are 1) an appeal to a sense of excitement or enthusiasm (perhaps closest to what Lao Why mentions; 2) a sense of security; and 3) some sense that their work serves a broader common good. It occurs to me that in the case of teachers or medical personal, 2 & 3 are most important.

      Given that analysis, Lao Why, I’m interested in more detail on what “empowerment” means in M3. Not being a management guy, I’m struck by the possible parallel between the 3 in M3 and what Boltanski & Chiapello describe as the “third spirt of capitalism.”

  5. Lao Why? says:

    @Lorin,
    Quoting Tom,
    “It also creates a workforce that feels more satisfied with their accomplishments (based on studies from the book). However, the need for purpose alone is insufficient; “motivation 3.0″ also requires work that allows for mastery, and grants autonomy.”

    I think the use of the term empowerment is appropriate here. I am not an intellectual (as you can see!) but I would describe empowerment as providing people (be it employees or citizens or students) with the ability to analyse a problem situation, create a solution, execute the solution, and receive the credit or the blame for the solution. In essence, the power to change things is inherent in a person’s desire to “make a difference”.
    Looked at in this way, I think China has a long way to go and indeed, I would argue that many of the fault lines running through China today are a clear byproduct of a disenfranchisment of the laobaixing, be it in work or school or politics or just interacting with others in everyday situations.

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