Although Daniel Pink has a JD from Yale Law School, he doesn’t practice law; that’s not what drives him. Instead, Pink served in the White House for two years as Al Gore’s chief speech writer. He then struck out on his own as a writer with a passion for understanding how and why people work.
In his latest book, Pink explores what motivates people to work creatively. His research on motivation culminated with the best-seller Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us .
In Drive, Pink explains what he calls a “mismatch between what science knows and what business does” when it comes to motivating people. The traditional model of rewards and consequences, or carrots and sticks, is outdated and largely ineffective, Pink says. Here, he shares insights on what really motivates people and how leaders can inspire their teams to be not only more creative, but also more productive.
SUCCESS: In Drive, you make the case that carrots and sticks don’t work. Does that apply to every situation in the workplace?
Daniel Pink: I think there is still a belief out there that the way to motivate people is to reward the behavior you want and to punish the behavior you don’t want. That may be true in some cases, but it’s not true in many, many cases. Science has proven that the if-then approach doesn’t work all that well for complicated, conceptual, creative tasks. Letting go of that holdover belief is essential if organizations want to move forward.
The science shows that for routine tasks, if-then works fine. But even with routine work, people are going to work even better if you acknowledge that the task isn’t that interesting, let them choose how to do it and let them know why they’re doing it. For example, Zappos took very routine work—working a call center—and made it much more autonomous and self-directed by not requiring people to use scripts and by allowing them to make decisions about how to best serve customers. The lesson is that we can make routine work less mundane, more autonomous and more meaningful.
Why does the carrot-and-stick approach backfire?
DP: It backfires for creative stuff because it focuses people’s attention. If you offer me $500 to do something, you have my focused attention. That focus can be a very good thing for some situations. But the problem is that focused attention is not only not helpful; it’s also harmful for work where you have to be thinking about things creatively.
And when you offer high-stakes rewards for short-term performance, people will try to hit those goals any way they can. The tactics they use aren’t always good for business long term.
It’s not that all rewards are bad; it’s just that the if-then rewards are not as universally effective as we’ve come to believe.
Can you explain the drivers behind the alternative approach, what you call motivation 3.0?
DP: We have a biological drive, and we have a reward and punishment drive. But human beings also have a third drive. We do things because we enjoy doing them or because they are the right things to do or because they contribute to the world. Science shows that this intrinsic drive is the pathway to performance. The secret to high performance is that unseen intrinsic drive, the drive to do things because they matter, and I believe that includes three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Autonomy has to do with the desire to direct our own lives. Mastery is our urge to get better and better at something that matters. And purpose is the yearning we have to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.
Where do managers or business owners start? How do they make the shift from if-then rewards to tapping into this intrinsic drive?
DP: You have to start out by paying people enough, and I would actually say pay them a little more than enough. Money does matter. That’s your staring point. But once you pay people enough, holding out additional units of money doesn’t create additional productivity. Get the issue of money off the table. Then focus on creating autonomy created a whole array of programs and products that would have never otherwise been created. The approach worked so well that Atlassian took it to the next level. Now its employees can spend 20 percent of their time on whatever they want.
Autonomy gives people control over their time, their techniques, their team and their tasks. When a company allows for autonomy, the managers are essentially saying, “Let me just get out of your way so you can do something great.”
What are some of the challenges and solutions to adopting this approach to motivation?
DP: One of the challenges is that, when changing any kind of practice, there is momentum behind doing what you’ve always done. Another challenge is that if-then rewards actually do work in the short term. If I’m a manager and I want my team to come up with a new product or service and I tell them I’ll give them $5,000 for doing it, I’m going to get their attention and a lot of activity, but not a lot of creativity.
The carrot and stick motivators are very easy. It’s much harder to ask, How can I put people in positions where they’re making progress? How can I shine a light on that progress? It can be difficult to create autonomy or opportunities for mastery.
One of the solutions is to recognize that you want people to be engaged. Traditional management is about compliance; it isn’t the way to get engagement. The only way to get people engaged is to give people autonomy over their work, give them the freedom to make progress and achieve mastery, and to infuse the workplace with a sense of purpose.
But I don’t think you can take someone who’s been working at a company for 25 years and say “Twenty-percent time, baby! Let’s roll!” Provide some scaffolding, some parameters.
This approach asks a lot more out of managers. You can’t treat everyone the same; you have to know what makes Maria tick and what makes Fred tick. You want to move people toward autonomy, but you have to realize that each person comes from a different starting point.
It’s not necessarily easy, but if we can move past the ideology of carrots and sticks, we can strengthen our businesses and, just maybe, change the world.