Dan Pink on Motivation

Dan Pink was at the RSA this week, selling his new book Drive. Pink’s presentation at TED was one of the highpoints of TEDxTuttle, so I was keen to see him in the flesh.

He was talking about motivation and how it relates to our working lives – and in particular to reward cultures.

I have to say that I was more than a little disappointed. It wasn’t that he was uninteresting or a bad speaker – indeed, he was very engaging; instead, it felt like I had heard his talk before. He didn’t seem to add much to his TEDTalk.

His main thesis is that businesses focus on the wrong things to motivate people. They generally use the carrot-and-stick approach to performance management, relying heavily on financial reward packages, rather than using more subtle, and possibly more effective, methods which utilise other needs – our desire for autonomy, the reward from mastering skills, and our sense of purpose.

He quotes work done by Ariely and co [PDF] which demonstrates, for tasks requiring higher cognitive skill, increasing financial incentives actually have a negative effect on perfomance. (For manual, physical skills – despite the move to “knowledge working”, a large proportion of jobs even today – the link between increasing financial incentives and increased performance still holds.)

The Economist recently reviewed Pink’s new book with a rather successful critique. People need money. Even Pink isn’t giving away his book (though I’d better check that…). I haven’t read the book – though I intend to – my comments are only based on his talk.

In his talk, Pink pointed to a flaw in his argument: if appealing to workers’ higher level needs for autonomy, mastery and purpose, you need to get pay people enough so that money isn’t an issue. How much “enough” will be is clearly a personal matter – but I would bet that for most people, their jobs don’t pay nearly enough to clear that hurdle. If you pay below that hurdle, financial incentives will probably work. For some people, that hurdle might be very high.

It also felt like Pink was guilty of treating everybody the same, just as most common reward systems do. But different people will have different drives and motivations. Maybe people who do respond to financial incentives are those who will be good at jobs which have that reward structure. We might all scoff at the large bonuses paid to investment bankers, but whilst we might covet the bonus, would we be willing to do the work? I doubt it.

Pink ran through a list of businesses which incorporate an appeal to the higher level drives to motivate their staff: Google with their famous 20% time; Atlassian’s ”FedEx days” (they have to deliver on projects overnight…); Zappos designing their call centres around the simple goal of “solving customers’ problems” anyway staff see fit (doing away with the rigid control and scripts most call centres adhere to); Tom’s shoes, which aims to “transform customers into benefactors” (no, Pink doesn’t know what they mean, either); Skype aiming to “make the world a better place”. (As a sense of purpose, he could have added Google’s entreaty “don’t be evil” – though that didn’t stop them submitting to China’s demands for censorship, nor their apparent flexible view of customer privacy.)

There are other businesses Pink could have discussed – WL Gore, the makers of Goretex and other hitech PTFE solutions, springs to mind: they have a very different approach to organising staff and operations, and from what I have seen have clearly won the hearts and minds of their staff that I have met.

The thing is, this isn’t new. WL Gore was founded in the 1950s. The last large corporation I was employed by went to great lengths in its attempts to bring its staff into the fold – to make them feel they belonged to the organisation and its culture (albeit a culture that was dominated by financial reward), even as they went through serial rounds of restructuring and redundancy. The practice of “human resource management”, which dates from the 1970s, is all about tying employees into the culture, locking them in so that they will go far beyond what is normally required – and to do it by themselves, internalising the motivation and control.

This is what the company men of IBM and GE used to do; it is why the salarymen of Japanese corporations remained with one firm for life. Of course, those same Japanese firms were quite happy to lay staff off during the downturn of the 1990s, as GEC and IBM made staff redundant when they changed their business models.

I’m not saying Pink is wrong – just the opposite, I think he is spot on. I just don’t believe what he’s saying is particularly new or radical, and I don’t think it is universally applicable. Perhaps reading his book may prove me wrong.


1 thought on “Dan Pink on Motivation

  1. Pingback: Burning Up: working in a “hot team” « Patrick's Blog

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