Book Review: Drive, the Surprising Truth about what motivates us, by Daniel H Pink

Today’s book review is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink. For a quick summary of the thesis, his Ted Talk is a good start, with the bonus that it will only take 20 minutes to watch. And this is a fairly slight book. But the thesis is such an important one that it is worth reading the book as well as watching.

Most business, or even political stories about motivation take a few things for granted. One is that a properly targeted bonus will make people perform better. Read most business articles about rewarding performance and they will take as given that people will improve whatever is being measured, in return for more money. The only trick to it is to make sure you are measuring the right thing.

But Pink has read more widely than the business literature. And psychologists have done lots of different experiments to try and work out how to motivate people in a variety of different tasks. And there are a variety of tasks where money (or close substitutes like chocolate) are actually counterproductive in trying to improve performance. Many (if not most) of the work performance that modern white collar companies are trying to improve upon with tend to worsen if they are rewarded with monetary incentives.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic motivation

Behavioural have created two broad brush ways of describing work that people might do – algorithmic and heuristic. Algorithmic behaviour is fairly straight line behaviour. There is one right way to do a task, and you do it. For example, the job of an accounts clerk is generally on in which there is a prescribed sequence of tasks, and in turn, steps.

But a heuristic task is the opposite. There is no right way to do the job. In fact part of the work is coming up with the way to do the task. Coming up with the new presentation of a company’s spending (accounted for by that accounts clerk) that helps the business understand decisions they can make to cut costs is a heuristic task.

External rewards and punishments – carrots and sticks – higher and lower bonuses – creating extrinsic motivation – are generally counterproductive for heuristic tasks. The more people are intrinsically motivated (motivation comes from pure enjoyment of the task), the more productive they are at heuristic tasks. Pink quotes Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile:

Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity; controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity.

Pink quotes a variety of different studies in which rewards (such as a cash bonus, or, for children, a special certificate) lead to worse performance for heuristic tasks. Pink quotes a pioneer in the field, Edward Deci,

Careful consideration of reward effects reported in 128 experiments lead to the conclusion that tangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.

And intrinsic motivation, other studies show, while fragile in the presence of extrinsic motivation, is overwhelmingly important in creating excellent performance in heuristic (generally creative) tasks.

So how should we motivate people?

So if you can’t improve people’s performance on heuristic tasks with carrots and sticks, how can you do it? Since it is a business book, Pink has some suggestions. His headings are:

  • Autonomy – give people control over their environment and their working lives, and they will perform better. Pink argues that our natural state is to be curious and self-directed, and if we are given room, we will regain that natural state with our working lives.
  • Mastery – Most of this chapter is about Flow. Described by its inventor, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as follows:

“We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like….. moments like these are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times…the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

If you are in this state, when you are working, you are both effective, and deeply intrinsically motivated to continue being effective at what you are doing.

  • Purpose – And finally, if you believe that what you are doing is part of something bigger, that is worthwhile, you will be intrinsically motivated in a powerful way.

Bonuses – so is there ever any point to them?

Pink’s view is that people want to believe that they are fairly rewarded. But the more specific the goals and rewards you give them, the less intrinsically motivated they will be. If you are looking for effective long term performance, creativity, and people who learn and improve, highly specific goals and rewards related to those goals will probably be counterproductive.

So the classic corporate bonus, where you have a set of KPIs, and are given a bonus based on your achievement on those KPIs at the end of each year, is probably not improving most employees’ performance. It is likely to be encouraging short term, linear thinking, and discouraging creativity.

But if employees generally have a more algorithmic role – defined by a fairly clear series of steps that need to be performed in a similar way to achieve a similar end on a regular basis, then bonuses generally improve performance.

Should I reward Daniel Pink by buying his book?

Based on his book, Daniel Pink isn’t highly motivated by whether we buy his book or not. But he does say that unexpected rewards, after a task has been completed, are the most effective for creative work. So yes, buying his book would be a good way of rewarding him.

The book, and the concept does ring true to me. I have always found, when managing people, that my best people are the ones who are least motivated by the bonus, and the KPIs. They trust themselves to know how to be effective, and they work best when they are confident that their effectiveness (rather than their ability to meet a series of highly defined task) is going to be recognised in the reward system.

The book itself is quite slight, a good read, but it adds less than I expected to Pink’s Ted Talk.

Even if you don’t have the ability to change your company’s reward system, you can still get quite a lot out of this book as a manager. Most of the positive suggestions about intrinsic motivation are ones that you will read elsewhere, but the real benefit for me was in thinking through how to lessen the negative impacts of very specific bonus systems. Sometimes a vague KPI, and a lot of coaching in creative ways to achieve the outcome is much more effective than a specific KPI that takes away the possibility of creativity.