What Drives Engagement in the Digital Age?

By Matt Kinsey

Mar. 30, 2010

Daniel Pink’s newest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, disputes the long-held corporate notion that handing out rewards on the job—money, for example—is the best way to manage employees. This carrot-and-stick approach, he says, is not only outdated, but is counterproductive and crippling to company morale. What we really need, according to Pink, is an upgrade in management technique, one in which people are free to explore what really motivates them: the desire to learn, create and improve their surroundings.

Pink talked with Matt Kinsey, a writer for Workforce Management sister publication Advertising Age, about what defines this new sense of drive. It’s what he calls Motivation 3.0: a combination of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Advertising Age: We last spoke in 2006, following the release of A Whole New Mind. That book made the case for the right-brainers of the world—the creative, empathetic and design-oriented—as the key players of future business. Fast-forward to today: We’ve got an economy recovering from the worst recession in decades, entrepreneurial spirit is high and small-business owners are charged with generating new markets. Do right-brainers still have the edge?

Daniel Pink: I think so. The argument in that book is that left-brain capabilities are necessary but not sufficient. That’s equally if not more true today, for a couple of reasons. One of the things that was tilting the scales was companies trying to save money through automation and outsourcing. That’s intensifying now, as companies are so strapped they’re looking to reduce costs on routine and rhythmic work. That’s making the non-routine and non-algorithmic more valuable.

There’s also this sense that a hardcore carrot-and-stick left-brain approach was one of the factors that drove the economy into a ditch. It wasn’t graphic designers who cratered the economy.

AA: Enter your research findings for Drive. For those who haven’t read the book, explain why our definition of motivation is so different in the 21st century.

Pink: There are 40 years of research that shows these carrot-and-stick motivators—particularly motivators of the “do this, get-that” ilk—work extremely well, but in a surprisingly narrow bank of circumstances. They’re good for relatively simple, straightforward algorithmic tasks. They’re good for getting short-term results. But the science is pretty clear that for more creative and conceptual work, for things that people kind of like doing and for long-term results, those kinds of motivators just don’t work. And they often do harm. There’s essentially a new technology for motivation that the science yields that isn’t built on carrots and sticks, but on autonomy, mastery and purpose.

AA: You embrace several radical management techniques in the book, including Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson’s Results-Only Work Environment, which stipulates employees can work from wherever they want, whenever they want. And many big companies have adopted ROWE, including Best Buy and Gap. Five years from now, can we expect businesses to be run as entirely different beasts?

Pink: It’s not a mainstream movement yet, but those companies employing radical forms of autonomy are harbingers of how we’re going to do things in the future, how companies will be run if you want them to be effective. Of course, these kinds of changes don’t happen with a snap of the fingers. You have some organizations doing things in a different way, and when they start performing well, other folks look to them and say, “What are they doing that I’m not?”

One thing you do see, which is a ticking time bomb in many ways, are these numbers on job satisfaction. If you look at the latest Conference Board numbers, they show morbid levels of job satisfaction. It’s a double whammy: People report being insecure—they’re very worried about losing their jobs—but they’re also bored. So there’s this level of disengagement in the workplace which is actually quite staggering, and what’s interesting about that is you see levels of people seeking engagement elsewhere. Levels of volunteerism and open-source participation are going up. People are seeking engagement who have not been getting it at work. And when the economy picks up a little bit, I think you’re going to have a lot of disgruntled employees who leave to do something else.

AA: Why have corporations been slow to adopt this notion of an autonomous workforce?

Pink: It’s a mix of things. We have this premise in a lot of business that is utterly unexamined, which is that the best way to motivate people is to offer them a contingent reward or threaten them with a contingent punishment. That premise is inaccurate! So in many ways we’re starting with the wrong premise. That’s a big part of it.

Another reason is, this is how we’ve always done things, and you can’t discount the importance of inertia. It’s easy to say, “OK, I’ll give you $1,000 if you come up with a good idea.” It’s harder to ask, “What can I do to create a workplace that’s more autonomous, that allows people to progress and get better at stuff that is infused with a sense of purpose?” That’s hard.

We fake ourselves out a little bit because those conditional incentives work in the short term, they really do. If you say to somebody, “I’ll give you a $1,000 bonus for coming up with a great idea,” they’re going to work very hard to come up with a great idea. But they’re going to be focused pretty much on getting that reward. Chances are, they’re not going to come up with a great idea. As a manager you’re going to think, “Wow, I’ve really motivated them; look how hard they’re working.” So we get faked out by the fact that these kinds of carrots and sticks are actually motivating in the short term. They do get people to work harder, but they don’t always get people to work better or more creatively.

AA: You have a name for those with a natural desire to learn and pursue goals: Type I’s, vs. Type X’s, who sit back and wait for instruction. Are these Type I’s better positioned to weather the post-recession workplace?

Pink: I think they’re better positioned to weather any workplace. There’s a kind of paradox afoot that says one of the best ways to get extrinsic rewards is to not go after them—basically, to do something you love to do and do it well. As hackneyed as that sounds, there’s actually a fair amount of science behind it.

I read a couple of studies of artists attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s, where one group of artists was very intrinsically motivated and the other was very extrinsically motivated. One said, “I paint because I paint; that’s what I am,” and the other said, “I’m really good at painting and I can make a living off of this and I can get my work in galleries and become really well-known.” Twenty-five years later, about half of these students are pretty successful artists, and almost all of them are the ones who were intrinsically motivated. The ones who weren’t pursuing those external rewards ended up getting them as a consequence of doing something really well. So I just think people with that orientation are gonna do better, period.

AA: Can anyone be motivated?

Pink: Sure. I think human beings want to direct their own lives and don’t want to be controlled. I’m convinced people by nature want to be active and engaged. For a lot of people, something happens to flip the switch the other way, but it’s very possible to switch it back.

AA: How can we better motivate ourselves at work?

Pink: There are small things people can do. It’s not as if they’re going to turn their lives around by saying three magic words or some kind of incantation. It’s more about taking very small steps to sculpt their jobs so they become a little more autonomous. A good starting point might be getting a more flexible work schedule, or taking on assignments outside of your everyday job that you find a little more interesting. Or maybe it’s joining a team or committee you’re not otherwise required to join.

That said, I do think there are many cases where people look deep down and realize they’re unsatisfied at work. It could be something about the nature of that organization that is in some ways irreparable. For some people, it means actually having to leave. But the first step is to try to do something small at your job. Set personal performance reviews for yourself. Take back the performance review from the bosses and work your way toward mastery. There’s all kind of small things people can do to awaken that. It’s difficult if the organization is completely counter to those sorts of ideas.

AA: What sort of advice do you offer executives seeking to motivate their staffs?

Pink: You have to start small. Let’s take the companies that are doing 20 percent time, like Google, where employees can spend one day a week working on a project they’re passionate about. I don’t think companies unfamiliar with 20 percent time should jump headlong into it right now, especially in a recession. Try something modest, something I call “20 percent time with training wheels.” So, 10 percent time. That’s one afternoon a week. And who among us hasn’t squandered one afternoon a week? You don’t do it permanently, you try it for three months or six months. You can completely slash operating costs right there, and you get a modest little experiment in autonomy.

Another way managers can motivate employees is by asking about their autonomy. Ask them, how much control do you have over your time? Over your task, your technique and your team? This is a big motivator, especially for building mastery. People like making progress. So one of the things it’s important for you to do is recognize progress and celebrate progress.

But again, change isn’t going to happen overnight. Everybody wants to say, “Just follow these three steps …” and that’s a false promise. It’s about making slow, steady changes and having that momentum accumulate. This idea you can announce some kind of new policy and everything’s going to be all right with the world is a false promise, and everybody knows that. I mean, everybody who’s not a boss knows that.

Workforce Management Online, March 2010Register Now!

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