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Summer 2014
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Books and Culture

Laura Vanderkam
What Drives Us
Fulfillment, not money, says Daniel Pink’s new study.
5 March 2010

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink (Riverhead, 256 pp., $26.95)

For as long as big business has been around, management has operated under a simple principle: if you want people to do more of something, pay them more. Hence, bankers earn bonuses for posting big gains. Managers earn bonuses for meeting quarterly earnings targets (and get fired when they don’t). It’s worked reasonably well as the economy has trudged along over the past few decades.

But lately, people have begun questioning the efficacy of this approach. “In the first ten years of this century—a period of truly staggering underachievement in business, technology, and social progress—we’ve discovered that this sturdy, old operating system doesn’t work nearly as well” as it could, Daniel Pink writes in his new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Why? The carrot-and-stick approach was created for an economy of assembly lines and mindless number-crunching. But these days, “for growing numbers of people, work is often creative, interesting, and self-directed rather than unrelentingly routine, boring, and other-directed,” says Pink, a former speechwriter for Al Gore whose previous book, A Whole New Mind, so captivated Oprah Winfrey that she gave copies to the entire 2008 graduating class at Stanford, where she delivered the commencement address.

An accumulating pile of academic research shows that rewards tend to focus the brain more narrowly on the specific task that earns the rewards—thus making it harder to encourage employees to develop creative, innovative solutions. That’s fine if you’re a manager trying to get people to stuff as many envelopes as possible. It’s not so good if you want people to dream up new products or product positioning, create new designs, generate article ideas, or, for that matter, write symphonies.

So Pink offers a different prescription. The best motivation, he suggests, is intrinsic, that is, when people want to do the work because they find the work itself fulfilling. That doesn’t mean such workers don’t want to be paid well. They do, of course, and they also like free coffee and in-office massages as much as anyone else. But leaders who understand this higher level of motivation compensate people in a way that “takes the issue of money off the table, so they can focus on the work itself.” They pay their employees well for their industry, but equally important, people aren’t pitted against one another through compensation schemes that pay some people way more than others for the same work. These leaders create an environment where people want to do their best. This involves giving people lots of autonomy over their time, their tasks, their techniques, and their teams; providing them an opportunity to work toward mastery of their professional craft; and imbuing their work with a sense of purpose.

Pink highlights a few businesses, from Zappos to Best Buy to—of course—Google, that incorporate elements of intrinsic motivation in their policies. He touches briefly on other areas of social life, from schooling to family chores, that would also benefit from some smarter motivational schemes. He gives a hearty thumbs-up to homeschooling, particularly the “unschooling” approaches that “encourage mastery by allowing children to spend as long as they’d like and to go as deep as they desire on the topics that interest them.”

Drive is a crisp and compelling book, though parts of it seem familiar. As the ranks of big-concept business books grow, authors wind up plowing many of the same fields. Somewhere in the middle of Drive, I found myself fantasizing about a law against anyone else lauding Google’s “20-percent time,” in which engineers spend one day a week working on projects they choose. The same academics—Dan Ariely, Anders Ericsson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—come in for a mention, though Pink did spend time interviewing many of these experts, thus adding much-needed primary source material to the mix.

More fundamentally, it’s not clear that Pink’s conclusion is as “surprising” as his title promises. He acknowledges that external motivators are still necessary: “People have to earn a living.” And external motivators are also not all inherently corrupting. If the boss takes you out for lunch to thank you for your hard work on a project, you won’t necessarily turn into a lab rat hitting a lever to get a treat. What works best is to get the combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations right, but is anyone shocked that the best places to work pay well and treat employees like human beings?

Unfortunately, such workplaces are rarer than they should be. As Pink himself noted in one of his early books, Free Agent Nation, a growing number of people are leaving the corporate world to work for themselves precisely because so few businesses offer these things. Forget 20-percent time. Pink, and many of us who are self-employed, get to spend 100 percent of our time doing what we want, with whatever we earn going straight to the bottom line. That’s motivation for you.

But a book telling readers to quit their day jobs will always attract a smaller audience than one showing how to modify existing workplaces to function better, and there is virtue in this more limited aspiration. If any corporate honcho reads Drive and decides to stop requiring everyone to be at his desk at 8 AM, Pink will have done a service. One can only hope that the right people pick up a copy.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, to be published by Portfolio in May.

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