Amy Jenkins: It takes more than a carrot and a stick to get the best from people

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The Independent Online

Pretty much everyone thinks corporate payouts are excessive these days. But bonuses haven't been given their marching orders – they're overpaid, oversexed and still here.

Why? Well, it's "common sense", isn't it? Huge rewards must go to huge talent – or it will leave the country. These super-achievers may be the brightest of their generation but when it comes to remuneration, the received wisdom goes, they'll just lollop after the biggest carrot like a bunch of salivating donkeys.

The latest controversial payout is the £11m due to go to John Pluthero, a senior executive at Cable & Wireless. The money is due to him under the company's "long-term incentive plan". But what if all that incentive stuff was nonsense? What if big cash prizes actually shut down creativity, productivity, to say nothing of the imagination? What if the London School of Economics was right in 2009 when – following an analysis of 51 corporate pay-for-performance plans – it reported that "financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance"?

In his new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H Pink claims that some of the most robust findings in social science are also some of the most ignored. Our understanding of human nature is in the realm of folklore if we persist in believing that the carrot-and-stick mentality is really what brings out our best. It might appear to work on a cursory analysis – or in the short term – but then the earth appears flat, doesn't it?

The carrot-and-stick ideology is so much part of our culture that it informs our every decision. To get my three-year-old to nursery I dangle a small chocolate bunny from my hand and run backwards so that he has to scoot after me. I tell him he can eat the bunny's feet when we get to the first street corner, the tummy when we get to the second and then, finally, when we get to the school gates he can eat the head. It works. But Daniel H Pink says it won't work for long.

First my son will want two bunnies. Then he'll want two bunnies and a new Peppa Pig DVD. Then he'll want two bunnies, a Peppa Pig DVD and a small flat in Clapham. Also, he won't ever scoot to nursery of his own accord again. I'll have taken away all his "intrinsic motivation" – the bit of him that enjoyed scooting to nursery just to feel the wind in his hair and the sun on his cheeks. Pink reports that rewards make people work like maniacs in the short term but lose interest in the longer haul.

Then there's the evidence that rewards and goals in the corporate world actually make people think with a more narrow focus – they're not truly focused on the problem, they are focused on the goal. This inhibits the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that can revolutionise the world.

Worse than that, researchers from Harvard Business School have shown that excessively rewarded goals cause systematic problems for organisations because of "narrowed focus, unethical behaviour and increased risk-taking". Put in evidence from the recent financial crisis and I think they can pretty much rest their case.

Then Pink asks you to imagine going back 10 years and being told that a new kind of encyclopedia was about to come online – an encyclopedia that anyone could edit and contribute to, an encyclopedia that would involve tens of thousands of people devoting tens of thousands of hours to writing it without being paid a penny. It's hard to look back without hindsight – but I, at least, thought Wikipedia would be a chaotic mess – and couldn't imagine (still can't) how anyone would have the time to contribute all those entries. But the fact is the whole Wiki way of doing things has been a huge success.

There's now open-source car design, open-source medicine, open-source credit and even open-source cola – among many other mind-warping open-source endeavours. Completely unregulated and unpaid, open source is the most powerful new business model of the 21st century. And what motivates the contributors? What did Lennon and McCartney say was the only thing we needed?

I remember when I was pregnant and a selfish, indulged thirtysomething, I wondered how on earth I was going to manage with a small baby. I thought I'd never be able to get up in the night or do all those tedious mum chores with good grace. I'd reckoned without the love, of course. Love is the biggest motivator of them all. And if loving your job is too much to ask, there are also the quiet pleasures of satisfaction.

The pleasure of doing a jigsaw or a crossword puzzle is an excellent example of how good humans feel when they are in the "flow" – in what Pink calls a state of "autonomy, mastery and purpose". This is a kind of "optimal experience" ultimately more rewarding than even the biggest bonus. What's the key to happiness? It's the journey, not the destination.

Tolstoy's outlook never goes out of fashion

I wonder what Tolstoy would have thought of reality TV. He is often called "the greatest of all novelists" and yet he famously sought to re-create reality in his works of fiction. He called War and Peace an "epic in prose" and thought it didn't really qualify as a novel – the story was merely a framework for an in-depth examination of psychological, socialist and political issues.

Could this be why Tolstoy seems to be having something of a moment in 2010? A film out this week by Bernard Rose (of Ivansxtc fame) updates Tolstoy's novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, to a modern dispossessed LA where excruciating jealousy and angst are given a suitably alienated setting. If a film like Up in the Air is an "anti rom-com" – a rom-com that takes the non-sentimental route – then this is the slasher-movie version, a bleak denial of the romantic myth as something that leads to nothing but hellish pain.

You won't be surprised by this if you went to see The Last Station. It was out recently and starred Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren as Count and Countess Tolstoy, portraying the events leading up to Tolstoy's famous death at Astapovo railway station, where he'd gone to escape his family.

At the end of his days Tolstoy became more and more ascetic. He rejected worldly things – his wealth, his own novels, his copyright (which he tried to give away) – and, quite brutally, his devoted wife.

Hurray for a cardless Mother's Day

Tomorrow is Mother's Day. There are three things I like about Mother's Day. One is the fact that, as my mother is long dead, I don't have to send her a card. Two is the fact that as my stepmother is a great rationalist and very unsentimental, I don't have to send her a card.

Three is the fact that, as I am now a mother, I don't have to do anything except lie in bed and see if tea and cards and presents are going to materialise first thing in the morning. They may not. If they don't, that's fine because I too am pretty unsentimental.

In my family of origin we never did Mother's Day or Father's Day or wedding anniversaries or Valentine's. There are far too many of them these days for my liking. There's a forced-ness about them that makes me dig in my heels and put back my ears. There's more to love than buying the appropriate greetings card.

You've got to laugh ...

We live in gloomy times. Or we like to think we do. But maybe people have always felt this gloomy and the amount of gloominess we feel is absolutely normal. We're just not used to it because the years between New Labour coming in and the end of the boom were, in fact, an aberration. A happy aberration, we could call it – if you draw a veil over 9/11 and Iraq. Perhaps we should call it a happy financial aberration.

Anyway, now it's business as usual. Laughter clubs are doing very well, apparently, in India and the US. Doesn't a laughter club sound great? You go along and everyone forces themselves to laugh for about 20 minutes. The laughter starts out fake but very soon becomes real. It's infectious, of course, and they say you come out high as a kite. Your immune system is boosted; your blood is full of oxygen; you're ready to face the world – it's like being a schoolkid all over again.