Book Review: Daniel Pink’s Drive

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I read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,  after hearing author Daniel Pink speak. He’s a terrific speaker; if you get a chance to hear him, do. In his book, Pink looks at how companies motivate their people and how people are best motivated. Pink helpfully boils his book’s content down to a tweetable precis: “Carrots and sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery & purpose.”

According to Pink, there are two types of motivation: Type X, which is fueled by extrinsic rewards such as a bonus or stock options, and Type I, which is fueled by intrinsic desires: “the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.”  While Pink feels that today’s business environment requires the type of engagement that can only be achieved through intrinsic motivation, he makes it clear that the findings in the book are by no means new. In 1949, behavioural psychologist Henry Harlow observed monkeys doing puzzles, not because they received a reward, but because the completion of the puzzle seemed to be inherently satisfying. Just as Victor Vroom, Lyman Porter, and Edward Lawler observed in their Expectancy Theory models,  people are motivated to behave in a certain way based on expected outcomes: intrinsic outcomes being particularly powerful.  As Napoleon observed, “There are two levers for moving men — interest and fear.” Stock options, extended vacation time, and company cars are not as effective as providing the means for genuinely satisfying work.

Where Pink (a former speechwriter for Al Gore, among other things) excels is in bringing some fairly dry managerial and behavioural theory to life. He frequently references the motivational practises of companies like Google, Zappos, and Netflix to make his point. He is a very entertaining writer as well, offering up such gems as: “We know that human beings are not merely smaller, slower, better-smelling donkeys trudging after that day’s carrot.” (Sorry to any donkey readers for the human prejudice!) His writing style is not unlike that of Malcolm Gladwell, which makes for an interesting read.

One of the key takeaways from the book is the importance of creating a purpose for your organization that is greater than simply increasing shareholder value. As it turns out, the goal of profit maximization gets very few people out of bed in the morning, even if there is a nice bonus to be had at the end of the year: “the richest experiences in our lives aren’t 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.”

Pink discusses the rise of “for-benefit” organizations such as Mozilla (the creator of the Firefox browser) and talks about “purpose maximization” rather than a focus strictly on profit. Shared purpose can bring together a group of employees in a way that no forced off-site team-building exercise can. As Pink notes, “Real challenges are far more invigorating than controlled leisure.” Pink writes: “A considerable body of research shows that individuals are far more engaged when they’re pursuing goals they had a hand in creating. So bring employees into the process. They could surprise you: People often have higher aims than the ones you assign them.” Purpose-driven work has the positive side-effect of creating happy and engaged employees who naturally take care of the bottom line. 

Not all organizations will embrace automatically the idea of giving their employees autonomy, or focusing on anything other than the third-quarter earnings call. Pink writes that one has to be strategic — dare we say fox-like? — in order to introduce some of these concepts into the workplace. When dealing with an old-school organization, it pays to be “strategically subversive.”  Pink describes how most of the innovative practices described in the book began the same way:

One smart person couldn’t take it any longer and decided to bend the rules or play the game in a slightly different way. She didn’t make a big announcement about it. Nor did she ask permission. She just took that initial — usually subversive — step. If things failed, she didn’t say a word. If things worked out, she told others. That’s how organizational change often begins — through strategic subversion by people frustrated with the status quo.

He urges us to start small, making small shifts in how we work. He comes from the “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” school of thought and urges us to “play with boundaries” rather than play within them. The fox most whole-heartedly approves.

In his book, Pink provides a solid foundation of motivational theory that he grounds by providing many examples of how great companies have implemented the theory with real-world success. For anyone involved in change efforts or growth initiatives, or anyone simply wanting to have more fun at work and in life, Drive is a compelling read.