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What drives us to work

7 December 2010

Some books change your view of the world, not so much because they tell you something completely new, as crystallise ideas you half-understood already. Or as Proust put it, you see the world with new eyes. Daniel Pink’s Drive is such a book. Anyone who cares about work – how it can be a source of enormous satisfaction, but more often is a dreary necessity or worse – should read it.

At first I thought it was merely a re-working of ideas I’d discovered, but half-forgotten, decades ago – Douglas McGregor’s Theories X and Y, Abraham Maslow’s self-actualisation at the top of his hierarchy of needs, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s wonderful Flow. Then I realised that Drive was much more than this, a new synthesis that takes account of these seminal concepts (of which most managers are still wilfully ignorant) and more recent research that greatly amplifies them. McGregor and his contemporaries showed what was wrong with carrot and stick approaches to motivation. More recent psychologists like Csikszentmihalyi have concentrated on what it takes for people to be highly motivated. How easy it is for these conditions to be achieved is open to question, but this is the most compelling overall account I have come across.

Drive also reinforces some of my convictions about the conditions for business success: that the founders of great businesses are inspired more by a vision of creating something radically new than dreams of riches; that balancing entrepreneurial spirit with management discipline is almost as important as developing distinctive organizational capabilities; that human capital is more valuable than most physical assets; that most large companies are too obsessed with efficiency, execution and short-term financial results to be capable of radical innovation; that the only organisations that survive and prosper in the long run are those who learn how to extend their capabilities.

The starting point of Drive is that approaches to motivation that rely on carrots and sticks not only don’t work in many cases, but can be counter-productive. Highly motivated people who are good at what they do mostly enjoy their work – they derive intrinsic satisfaction from it. This is most likely to happen, not when they are offered extrinsic rewards, but when they enjoy a degree of autonomy over their work, are able to get better and better at it, and have a sense of purpose.

The reward and punishment approach to motivation, equivalent to McGregor’s Theory X, sees workers basically as factors of production and reduces the function of management essentially to supervision and control. This miserable philosophy is in direct line of descent from FW Taylor’s scientific management, BF Skinner’s behaviourism and Homo Oeconomicus beloved by so many economists. Carrots and sticks may improve performance in the short-term, particularly for routine tasks where the processes are well defined, but not in the long-run or where creativity and initiative are required. Offering rewards for these and emphasising compliance reduce feelings of autonomy and the desire to do the job for its own sake. When rewards do incentivise, research has shown that they often distort behaviour. We’ve all seen spectacular examples recently of bankers and mortgage salesmen addicted to bonuses and taking ludicrous risks.

Instead of this ‘Type X’ approach (named in honour of McGregor), Pink advocates a Type I (for intrinsic), based on the work of ‘positive psychologists’ like Csikszentmihalyi, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. (Deci was actually fired from Rochester business school in 1973 because of his heretical views on incentives.) Their research suggests that all human beings have innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness to others. Only if these are satisfied can people be happy in their work. In the long run, Type Is perform better than Type Xs, mainly because they are engaged with their work. Extensive research by Gallup and McKinsey suggests that only a minority are highly engaged and that many are actively disengaged. That is partly a reflection of how poorly most of them are managed, but also raises the question of how universally achievable Type I behaviour really is.

Quite apart from all the research, this thesis is immensely appealing intuitively to someone like me who gave up working in big companies, including consulting groups, partly because there was never enough time to think. I’ve had the luxury of pursuing private passions, but I’m acutely aware that satisfaction comes at a price. Nor am I typical – not everyone is as turned on by autonomy, mastery and purpose as some of us are. Nobody wants to be a slave, but do we all want to be masters?

In my next post I’ll consider some qualifications to Daniel Pink’s excellent book.

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