The puzzle of motivation

This talk by Dan Pink is related to the article I had posted last month: What Drives Us? Understanding Motivation. In this insightful talk, Pink expands on the core idea of motivation discussed in his book – Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Dan Pink explains that if-then rewards or carrot-stick approach for intellectual work can often cause more harm than good. He discusses functional-fixedness and how incentives only work to motivate when tasks are mundane and require little intellectual ability.

In this talk, Pink asserts with a wonderful dose of humour that it is neither socialistic nor philosophical when he says that you need to provide more than incentives for the people to work. He also discusses Dan Ariely’s experiments that I had discussed What makes us feel good about our work? and its replica carried out in Madurai, India. This is what he says –

“What happens? People offered the medium level of rewards did no better than people offered the small rewards. But this time, people offered the highest rewards, they did the worst of all. In eight of the nine tasks we examined across three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance.

Is this some kind of touchy-feely socialist conspiracy going on here? No, these are economists from MIT, from Carnegie Mellon, from the University of Chicago. Do you know who sponsored this research? The Federal Reserve Bank of the United States.”

Pink explains how Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are three crucial aspects of the intrinsic motivation. And he goes on to expand more on autonomy aspect of the work with examples from well-known organizations. He asserts that it is not an utopian idea, there are real-life examples which have demonstrated excellence through self-direction. Here is yet another wonderful insight from his talk –

“Management is not a tree, it’s a television set. Somebody invented it. It doesn’t mean it’s going to work forever. Management is great. Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self-direction works better.

Some examples of some kind of radical notions of self-direction. You don’t see a lot of it, but you see the first stirrings of something really interesting going on, what it means is paying people adequately and fairly, absolutely – getting the issue of money off the table, and then giving people lots of autonomy.


It’s worked so well that Atlassian has taken it to the next level with 20% time, done, famously, at Google – where engineers can spend 20% of their time working on anything they want. They have autonomy over their time, their task, their team, their technique. Radical amounts of autonomy. And at Google, as many of you know, about half of the new products in a typical year are birthed during that 20% time: things like Gmail, Orkut, Google News.”

There is more humour, more wonderful examples (MS Encarta Vs. Wikipedia) in this talk, you can watch it here –

I hope businesses all over the world realize what behavioural sciences have figured out in the last decade about human motivation. I see a lot of organizations here in India still following traditional management and trusting older, now-proven-wrong beliefs about human motivation. Worse still, giving little attention to the autonomy and purpose. I hope talks like these and wonderful work such as Barry Schwartz’s Why We Work help them understand how nourishing intrinsic motivation could be beneficial not only for the individuals, but also for the organizations. That could indeed radically change the way people work within organizations.

The featured image used in this article is a screen-shot from the talk.

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