The surprising truth that motivates us

Why right-brainers will rule the future

Since I joined the social innovation (SiG) team at MaRS in January, author Daniel Pink’s name has come up in numerous conversations. I hadn’t read any of Pink’s books before, but after skimming over his earlier New York Times bestseller, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World, I quickly realized why he was such a popular conversation point in the social innovation space.

In this earlier work, Pink talks about how the workplace has evolved from a knowledge-intensive Information Age to a creativity-intensive Conceptual Age. In this new age, “right-brain” aptitudes like inventiveness, storytelling, empathy and a desire for meaning become the benchmark for success.

For the right-brain-thinking class of social entrepreneurs, this leads to some cool thoughts: What would the world look like if business and political leaders shared the character traits that drive the typical social entrepreneurs? What could be better than the prospect of naturally socially minded right-brainers eventually taking over the world (or more “empathetically”, leading a wave of worldwide social transformation)? Fantastic!

With these happy thoughts, I was eagerly anticipating Pink’s talk on his newest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth that Motivates Us (held at the Rotman School of Management to a crowd of at least 200 eager listeners).

In terms of entertainment value, Pink’s talk was worth it. As a speaker, he was funny, engaging and for many people in the crowd, inspiring.

At a deeper level, however, the substance of his book wasn’t all that new. In the book and in the talk, Pink describes three fundamental types of human drives. The first and most basic drive is biologic – the need for food, the desire to procreate, etc. With the exception of the occasional office lunch party or office love affair, satisfying this drive isn’t really a major concern in the workplace.

In contrast, Pink argues that organizations have historically, and often incorrectly, placed most of their motivational efforts on the second fundamental drive: reward/punishment. Pink termed these “if/then” motivators (if you do X, then Y will happen) and argued that these types of motivations rarely work in the way they were intended. His reasoning is that employers make two fundamentally flawed assumptions about humanity: first, we assume that humans are simple machines (“if you press the right levers, people will respond in the way you want them to”) and second, we assume that people are “blobs” (Pink’s term for the idea that humans are by nature passive and inert).

In an effort to satisfy the oft-used literary desire to establish a “rule of three”, Pink went on to describe a third fundamental drive – the need to be creative, to be enthused about our work and to feel like we are part of something grander than ourselves. Whereas managers perceive the lowly employee as passive and inert, humans are in reality active and engaged. Pink illustrated this point with a great analogy to the exploratory nature of children – what he called humanity’s “default setting”. Motivating workers in today’s workplace requires a management style that allows this drive to flourish.

Pink proposed three ways (again, the rule of three) to do this:

  • Give people autonomy in their work. One strategy he suggested is to play on the “20% time” concept (i.e. allow staff to spend one full day to do whatever they want to do, with few to no boundaries).
  • Create the conditions to allow staff to become masters over their work (i.e. leverage the idea that people feel really good and most alive when they make progress on an activity that they are engaged in). A strategy to inspire this type of work environment is to institute “do-it-yourself performance reviews”
  • Inspire a sense of purpose. Employees need to understand and feel connected to a grander purpose than simply the profit motive.

Pink’s analysis and recommendations may seem novel and exciting. But near the end of his talk, I remembered a talk given one year earlier by Rocco Rossi (well before he made his mayoral announcement). Rossi spoke about his transition from the corporate world to the Heart and Stroke Foundation and in that talk he spoke about why many corporate people eventually gravitate to the non-profit world. His deduction – people want control over their work, they want to make decisions, and they want to feel connected to a larger purpose. Sound familiar?

Clawing deeper into my memory banks, I also recalled my Organizational Behaviour prof telling me the exact same thing about human motivation. When you think about it, these three ideas have been recommended, in different forms and different settings, many times over. Because motivation has been studied so much, it really requires breakthrough thinking to generate new thought in the field. I’m not sure that Pink achieved that.

Other people in the audience sensed this as well – during the Q&A session, one attendee stated, “your analysis seems very similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”. Pink didn’t have a response.

Perhaps one of the key contributions of Pink’s book is that it puts motivation into the forefront of people’s thinking. It is an entertaining read and Pink is an entertaining speaker, so on that front Drive is useful resource.