Dan Pink Shifts into Drive

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By AMA Staff

Daniel H. Pink is the author of four provocative books about the changing world of work. His latest is the best-seller Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which uses 50 years of behavioral science to overturn the conventional wisdom about human motivation and offer a more effective path to high performance.

Dan Pink spoke to AMA about his book as part of the Edgewise podcast series. Listen to the entire podcast. The following is an edited, condensed version of that interview.

AMA: Drive is based on five decades of scientific research on human motivation.  Can you describe that research and some of its findings?
Daniel H. Pink: We have this notion that the way to get people to perform better is with carrots and sticks. The conventional view in most businesses is this: you reward the behavior you want and you punish the behavior you don’t want, because rewarding behavior gets you more of it and punishing it gets you less of it. For the last 40to 50 years, scientists around the world have scrutinized this idea and said, “Okay. How true is this?” What they found is that it actually is true some of the time, but it’s not true all the time. In fact, it’s actually true less often than we think, and that has huge implications for business and management. 

Here’s what the scientists found. For relatively simple, straightforward, mechanical work—what psychologists call algorithmic work—where you’re following a set of rules, following a recipe, racing to the correct answer—the classic sort of motivator we use inside of organizations (what I call an “if/then” motivator, as in, if you do this, then you get that) works pretty well. If/then motivators get people to focus, eliminate distractions, and barrel straight ahead.

The problem is, for more complex, creative, conceptual work, if/then motivators don’t work very well. Sometimes they even backfire. So what we have is a motivational system designed for routine, mechanical work, when fewer and fewer people, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, are doing that kind of work.

What we really need is a fundamentally different motivational operating system, one that’s centered less on carrots and sticks and more based on what science tells us leads to enduring motivation for creative, conceptual work.

AMA: In your book, you describe three elements of true motivation. Can you list those and talk a bit about each one?
Pink: The three key elements are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is our desire for self direction. Companies have the notion that it is best for managers to control people, to “manage” them. The problem is that you can manage people into compliance, getting people to do what you want them to do, the way you want them to do it, but it’s very difficult to manage people into engagement. People engage by getting there under their own steam, through self-direction. This calls for a ratcheting up of the autonomy that people have over various aspects of their work—over their time, what they do and when they do it, with their team, their technique, and the task itself.

The second element is mastery, which is our desire to get better at stuff. We like to get better at stuff for the simple reason that we like getting better at stuff. It’s inherently enjoyable. Research shows that making progress—achieving mastery—is one of the, if not the, most motivating parts of work. Unfortunately, our organizations aren’t set up to help people make progress or to put them in positions where they can make progress, recognize that progress, shine a light it, celebrate it, or give people feedback so they can make progress.

And finally, there’s purpose. Purpose is the very human desire to be part of something larger than ourselves, to understand the context of what we’re doing to make a contribution. It turns out that simply awakening this sense of purpose, letting people know a little bit more about why what they’re doing matters and why it contributes to the world, can be a very effective performance enhancer.

For the complex, conceptual, creative, more sophisticated work that most everyone is doing today, and certainly in the United States, Western Europe, Australia, Japan, Korea, and so on, we’ve woefully oversold carrots and sticks. We need to move toward greater autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

AMA: You discuss two types of behaviors, type I and type X, in the book. What are they?
Pink: There are many kinds of motivation, but two of the kinds of motivation that psychologists write about are intrinsic (type I) and extrinsic (type X) motivation. Intrinsic motivation is when you want to do something because it’s inherently satisfying. Extrinsic motivation is when you something for the external validation, the recognition, be it the prize, the promotion, the money, the accolades.

It turns out that the type I behavior is a far more effective way to achieve life satisfaction.  It also turns out that in terms of the actual performance itself, type I might be a better route than type X, and that’s a paradox in a way, because in many cases, the people who receive the extrinsic rewards are the people who are not doing it for those rewards, but are doing it for the intrinsic reasons.

AMA: You’ve included a toolkit in Drive to help people maximize the value of type I.  What strategies can we use to awaken our own motivation with intrinsic rewards?
Pink: For the individual, one of the ideas that I write about is the notion of flow—those moments when the challenge is so exquisitely matched to our capabilities that we’re in the zone. Time melts away. Our sense of self melts away. I think it’s important to understand when we’re having those kinds of moments. If people were to set their phone or their watch to randomly go off, say, eight times a day, and each time it goes off, write down what you’re doing and whether you’re in flow, whether you’re having that kind of transcendent moment, and then do it for a week and see what it’s like. You will begin to notice some patterns about what are you doing, where you are, and what sorts of tasks you are involved in when you’re experiencing those moments of flow.

One strategy organizations can use is to allow employees to work on anything they want for a designated amount of time. This has worked well for an Australian software company called Atlassian. Once a quarter on Thursday afternoons, they say to their software developers, “Go work on anything you want. Do it the way you want, with whomever you want. The only thing we ask is that you show what you’ve created to the rest of the company on Friday afternoon in a fun, freewheeling meeting.” They call these “FedEx Days,” because people have to deliver something overnight.

Well, lo and behold, it turns out that that one day of intense, undiluted autonomy has led to a whole array of fixes for existing software, a lot of ideas for new products, ideas for improvements to internal process; processes that had otherwise never emerged. This is quite remarkable because it is not a traditional carrot dangling in front of someone saying, “If you do something great, I’ll give you this crunchy reward.” Instead it’s saying, “You probably want to do something good, so let us get out of your way.”

Intuit, another software company, provides 10% time, allowing people to spend 10% of their time working on whatever they want. The company still owns the intellectual property rights to any developments, so it’s not a charitable act. The head of innovation at Intuit told me that when they decided to move toward doing more mobile applications, the team doing 10% time created seven mobile apps before the official teams even got started.

These kinds of practices are really, really powerful, and I think they offer us ways to use the power of autonomy to get people to do some breakthrough work.

AMA: Finally, let’s talk about money. How does compensation factor into the motivation equation?
Pink: Money is a very important motivator. Money matters a lot. However, the main thing with money is that you’re never going to get it perfect. There are always going to be glitches, externalities, and unintended consequences. The key with money, science shows, is that the best approach is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay them enough so they’re not thinking about money; they’re thinking about doing their work. And, once you do that, focus on autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

After the fact, it’s fair to give people a bonus or a pat on the back. But when we dangle these kinds of rewards in front of people, it’s just another form of control, and human beings don’t do their best work when they’re being controlled.

About The Author(s)

American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.