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Unexpected Leader: Burning Man Festival

Employee Motivation Lessons from the Burning Man Festival

By Bridget Quigg, PayScale.com

How can you inspire human beings to do something great? Books have been written about it, great thinkers have thought about it, and an annual event in the Nevada desert seems to have done it – all without setting up a rewards structure or incentive pay plan. What can we learn about human motivation from Burning Man?

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If you’re not familiar with the event, you’re not alone. While it attracts about 50,000 people to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert each year, Burning Man doesn’t appeal to everyone. Almost anything goes, including a lot of nudity. But, attendees, known as “participants,” aren’t truly having a free-for-all. They must follow some specific rules.

Besides giving up cars for transport and practicing “radical self-reliance” (being prepared to survive for a week in the desert on your own), “decommodification,” means no cash transactions. People are meant to bring everything they need for themselves, plus items, events or art to give away. No one gets paid for what they give. Are they very productive, inspired or generous in their gifts?

They sure are. From creating multi-thousand dollar temporary dance halls to 50-foot tall works of art, people at Burning Man create awe-inspiring gifts. E.B. Boyd, in a story for Fast Company "Leadership Lessons from Burning Man" ponders how the event is so successful without money for a motivation.

Boyd suggests that respect and trust, in abundance, make the difference.

Leadership Lessons from Burning Man

Boyd offers readers the following four leadership lessons from Burning Man.

1. It starts with culture. Burning Man becomes the 11th largest city in Nevada for one week, but it has no police men, follows an open door policy and is considered safe to walk around at any time of night, even for women. How is this possible? Boyd suggests that the rules to be lived by are not only taught they are explained along with how the benefit of them to participants’ experience. The rules are given, and the why behind them.

Q: Do you give employees at your company the “why” behind what you ask of them?

2. Add a dose of trust and positive reinforcement. Signs and reminders throughout Burning Man remind participants of the rules, but almost always with a dose of humor. The principles of “makes sense” and communal spirit assume that people are trustworthy, rather than controlling them from the top-down.

Q: Is there a joke you could add to the sign asking everyone to recycle?

3. Motivate with autonomy. Rather than its organizers assigning certain activities to certain participants or outlining what the event needs in advance, attendees do all of the thinking and creating for the event. The organizers simply offer the space.

Q: What if employees were asked more often offer solutions to company challenges?

4. Reward people with appreciation, rather than money. In his most recent book Drive, Daniel Pink claims that you cannot always motivate people with money. Beyond affording their basic survival, offering more money to a creative person won’t inspire more or better creativity. Autonomy, along with mastery and purpose, says Pink, gets people producing, happily.

Boyd says it well, “Trust people and they will usually live up to that trust. Give people creative freedom, and they will surprise you with what they deliver… yet many organizations fall down… offering only money rather than latitude in the effort to drum up creativity.”

Q: When is the last time each person in the company, individually, has received an award, thank you or gift card and been acknowledged for their contribution?

We’ll finish quotes from recent Burning Man attendees describing why they think the festival motivates people to work hard and be creative.

“Everyone is welcomed and invited to not pass judgment. So, maintenance men use their skills to build incredible camps, thinking about everything needed to survive in the desert. They get to do things they wouldn't normally do at work. Everyone gets a chance to be respected and give respect. Confidence, I think, is sometimes lacking in workers because they don’t get the opportunities and positive feedback from people in their company. Burning Man builds people’s confidence.”

- Elizabeth W.

“I think why Burning Man works is because it’s like a blank canvas. The desert is free and clear of anything and you bring everything to it. It’s open to anyone’s interpretation of what Burning Man means. There is no judgment. It’s all about people sharing what it is that they are good at. People bring themselves to it in such a big way. They are nurtured and they are in a place where they are not going to get judged. They turn up the volume on their personalities and their own skills sets.”

- Stefan D.

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