In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains that “carrot and stick” motivation tactics might work when tasks are rote and require little thought, but in the modern workplace where creativity and adaptation are often needed, those same tactics backfire and decrease performance. To motivate people to do their best work, Drive says we need to foster the intrinsic elements of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and leave behind the extrinsic motivations of rewards and punishments.
I will limit the scope of this post to a brief discussion of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and provide a few of my thoughts on the book. You can find more detailed reviews elsewhere if what you read here interests you. Ultimately, I believe you would be best served by getting a copy of the book as it is a quick read and includes additional information that I haven’t seen on any review or summary (specifically the toolkit section of recommendations for individuals and companies).
Autonomy is the desire to direct our own lives. Drive describes autonomy according to four T’s: task, time, technique, and team.
- Task – do you determine what you do?
- Time – do you determine when you do it?
- Technique – do you determine how you do it?
- Team – do you determine who you collaborate with?
Each of us will prioritize different areas of autonomy as being important to us; for example, autonomy of technique matters a great deal to me.
Drive provides many examples of autonomy resulting in greater productivity, less turnover, and higher workplace satisfaction. One study showed businesses that granted autonomy to workers grew at four times the rate and had one-third the turnover compared to businesses that relied on top-down direction. Drive makes an important point: you cannot take someone from a controlling environment and simply drop them into an environment of autonomy. Without a support system to help them transition, those people will struggle.
Mastery is the desire to get better at something that matters. Drive starts the discussion of mastery by describing “flow”, the mental state we reach when we become lost in the challenge of the task we are performing. To reach a state of flow, we need three things: clear goals, immediate feedback, and challenges well matched to our abilities. Challenges that are too difficult cause anxiety, while those that are too easy create boredom.
Flow helps us in our journey to attain mastery, but it is not the same thing as mastery. Mastery is something we strive for over a long period of time, and Drive describes it according to three “laws”:
- Mastery is a mindset – you have to prize learning goals over performance goals, and welcome effort as a way to improve. Performance goals are short-term and objectively measurable (I want to get an “A” in French class) compared to learning goals, which are long-term and usually subjective (I want to become fluent in French).
- Mastery is a pain – you have to understand that it takes effort, and the path will not be easy. You must have perseverance and passion for your long-term goals.
- Mastery is an asymptote – you must accept that you can approach mastery, you can get really close to it, but you will never reach true mastery. Find joy in the pursuit, understanding that the goal will never truly be realized.
We can achieve even more when we act in the service of something greater than ourselves.
Drive gives the example of a study done with call center representatives working for a university fundraising operation. Before starting work, one group read brief stories from previous employees describing the benefits they had received from performing the job. Another group read stories from people who had received scholarships from the funds raised, and how that had benefited their lives. The first group performed no better or worse than before, but the group that read about how their work benefited others raised twice as much money.
From my own experiences, I would say that mastery and purpose can elevate motivation to new levels, but motivation can’t exist without autonomy. I have worked for companies whose mission didn’t matter to me (they didn’t have one, or didn’t live by it), yet I remained highly motivated to do my best even in the absence of purpose. I have also had times where my day-to-day work did not allow me to pursue my chosen area of mastery. During those times I would pursue mastery outside of work hours, so I was able to compensate for this and continue to perform well at work, though admittedly with a lesser degree of motivation. It was only when I lost autonomy, especially in how I approached my job (technique), that I felt discouraged and lost motivation.
I wonder how a truly autonomous organization would work. In large groups, there will be some bad actors who seek to take advantage of autonomy and use it as a way to leech off the group. Do we rely on peer reviews to keep this in check? In a results oriented work environment (ROWE), how do you define what level of results is outstanding, acceptable, or sub-par? Drive says that we need to maintain accountability when giving autonomy, but it doesn’t go into detail.
I’ll close with this fun video animation of a Daniel Pink talk on Drive: