On Motivation, Intrinsical and Extrinsical (Review of Daniel Pink’s “Drive”)

One of the great feats of being a small business owner — besides being part of the backbone of America’s economy — is that one gets to spend evenings reading books and magazines about organizational management and other business topics in a continuous effort to improve one’s own skills.

Or so the theory goes. Yours truly, in fact, prefers to read about philosophy and history and would consider Plato to be the best organizational guru there ever was. Preferred self-help works include Dante’s Divine Comedy and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. But occasionally, nudged by the missus, I’ll open up one of the works on her growing list of recommendations and start reading.

So it happened that I bumped into Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. In this book the author argues that how the vast majority of companies are motivating their workers “extrinsically” is completely outdated in our modern economy: “They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm.” These monetary rewards, Pink writes, “can deliver a short-term boost — just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off — and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.” In today’s world, the author argues, folks are motivated intrinsically. You leave them to their own devices, don’t burden them with sticks and carrots, and the creativity will start flowing like the Mississipi River.

Who would guess that young children are more motivated to produce a drawing if they are not expecting a reward after the fact?

This book is certainly interesting. The author puts forth a straightforward argument and provides ample research to back up his thesis, some of it eye-opening. Who would guess that young children are more motivated to produce a drawing if they are not expecting a reward after the fact? In another example, “researchers at Cornell University studied 320 small businesses, half of which granted workers autonomy, the other half relying on top-down direction. The businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the turnover.”

It all sounds solid enough, though the question arises which companies are being investigated here. Are these Cornell researchers comparing start-ups run by fresh college grads in Silicon Valley to the McDonald’s in Pleasant Hill, Iowa? Or are we talking about similar industries in order to level the playing field? As mentioned above, this reviewer owns a small business himself — though not of the glamorous kind — and gets the sense that Pink’s head exists in a bubble of Facebook, Apple, Uber and other innovative tech giants. His examples of companies motivating their employees the ‘correct’ way — Atlassian (software), 3M, Netflix, Zappos.com, JetBlue, Facebook and more such companies — suggest as much. Pink has little to say about the unmotivated piece of work fixing your sub over at the gas station, or about the housekeeper cleaning your hotel room at the La Quinta during your April Florida vacation.

The author himself would deny this, of course, and in his defense, he does briefly address the issue of non-creative repetitive labor: “Whether you’re fixing sinks, ringing up groceries, selling cars, or writing a lesson plan, you and I need autonomy just as deeply as a great painter.” But, he continues, the majority of us will at first struggle when thrown into the deep waters of “undiluted autonomy”, and hence “Organizations must provide … ‘scaffolding’ to help every employee find his footing to make the transition.” Fair enough, but what does this “scaffolding” entail in a practical sense? It doesn’t become very clear from proceeding through Pink’s pages.

Next follow some Rousseauian observations about human nature that the grand master of philosophical folly could himself have whipped up: “We’re designed to be Type I [motivated by intrinsic desires]. But outside forces — including the very idea that we need to be ‘managed’ — have conspired to change our default setting and turn us into Type X [motivated by extrinsic desires]. If we update the environments we’re in — not only at work, but also at school and at home — and if leaders recognize both the truth of the human condition and the science that supports it, we can return ourselves and our colleagues to our natural state.” And, quoting a researcher on the topic: “The course of human history has always moved in the direction of greater freedom. And there’s a reason for that — because it’s in our nature to push for it.”

I’m sorry, but human history is not moving unstoppably towards greater freedom any more than I, employer, am suppressing my workers’ creative nature by setting deadlines and doling out incentives. What is happening here is that we in the West have arrived at an utter anomaly in human history in which the battle for basic subsistence has been won (for now) and that we are at liberty to enjoy the unprecedented luxuries brought forth by science, technology and the arts. It is certainly true that these fields are driven forward by man’s intrinsic curiosity and desire to create new things, and the fact that they have thrust our civilization — if not humanity at large — to great heights should instill an enormous dose of gratitude and humility in us.

But back down on Earth, real goods still need to be produced, not just dreamed up by hipster types: Oil and gas need to be pumped to the surface, corn and wheat have to be harvested, cars need to be assembled, hotel rooms need to be cleaned, restaurant meals have to be cooked, and homes need to be built. Much of the production of these goods revolves around basic, repetitive tasks and invokes a certain level of dread and boredom. From my personal experience, the majority of workers involved want to work just enough hours for their paycheck to hold them over to the next one (and who can blame them?). The successful completion of their tasks is contingent upon a supervisor setting clear expectations, checking for quality of work after the fact, and showing gratitude for good behavior by continuing the employment relationship and handing out a nice paycheck.

None of this is to say that Drive isn’t worth your valuable time. As with many such works, one takes a few good ideas and runs with them. While I can’t afford to allow my employees to spend twenty percent of their time brainstorming about new products or process improvements, there’s nothing stopping me from empowering them to have a say in how things are done in my company. So how about coming together for a half-day plenary session every three months and allow the staff to blurt out any idea that might have popped up in their head? I might just give it a try.

With all this in mind, I would recommend this book to certain types of readers, such as consultants, employers or the budding and dreaming entrepreneur. Just don’t expect to be blown away by every word you’re reading.

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