Driving Toward a New Destination

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

Driving Toward a New Destination Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. Riverhead. 2009. 242 pages. $26.95

Most of us believe that the best way to motivate ourselves and others is with external rewards. Without a clear incentive, like more money, complemented by a disincentive, like poverty, people wouldn’t contribute to society. They might hunt and gather, but they wouldn’t build skyscrapers, invent new computer languages, or teach high-school algebra.

That carrot-and-stick approach worked well in the twentieth century, but as Wired magazine contributing editor Dan Pink shows in his new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, it’s the wrong way to inspire people to tackle the challenges of today. A growing body of scientific evidence- starting with the work of physiologists Harry Harlow in the 1940s and Edward Deci in the late 1960s-shows us that people are motivated by the “intrinsic value” of a good job well done far more than many managers assume. “If the science is to be believed, a new approach to encouraging people is in order,” says Pink.

He outlines three essential elements to that approach.

* Autonomy. In the words of Harlow and Deci, “autonomous motivation means acting with a full sense of validation and choice.” The autonomous performance environment, whether an office or a classroom, is one where results matter above adherence to arbitrary control rules like dress code and punctuality. Researchers at Cornell University studied 320 small businesses to see whether top-down micromanagement motivated workers better than did freedom or autonomy. Pink reports that the control-oriented firms grew at one-fourth the rate of the firms that allowed more worker freedom. The control firms also experienced three times the job turnover among employees.

* Mastery. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown that people tend to perform best on those jobs where perfection was just beyond the person’s present capabilities. “That perfect balance between person and a goal that sits just barely out of reach produced a degree of focus and satisfaction that surpassed other, more quotidian experiences,” says Pink.

* Purpose. Purpose is the personally affirming, possibly spiritual, connection between the individual and the task. Pink says that, without purpose, even autonomous employees striving for mastery will perform below their potential. Field research at the Mayo Clinic found that doctors who spent one day a week on community service projects, or talking with patients, or involved in other activities to which the doctors felt a strong personal connection brought more energy to the rest of their work. These physicians had half the resignation rate of those who did not have this connection.

This new way of organizing what we do, which Pink calls Motivation 3.0, doesn’t destroy the value of extrinsic rewards. People who participate in opensource software development still want to turn a profit in their own endeavors. Wikipedia’s many thousands of volunteer contributors still eat out at restaurants, buy gas, and lust after the same commercial goods as anyone else does. But, says Pink, we now have real evidence to show what many of us always suspected: Success in any endeavor comes from a personal connection to the task at hand.

“We are designed to be active and engaged,” he concludes. “We know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t the moments when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice-doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.”

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, September-October 2010

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