"DRiVE" Me Crazy!

In his new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink says that a new motivational operating system, what he calls Motivation 3.0, is needed for today’s business because what science has discovered is that people are “intrinsically motivated purpose maximizers.”  The book jacket says, “He (Pink) demonstrates that while carrots and sticks worked successfully in the twentieth century, that’s precisely the wrong way to motivate people for today’s challenges.” These kinds of statements drive me crazy.  What does “intrinsically motivated purpose maximizers” mean?  Did “carrot and stick” ever really work? Philosophers, religious leaders, and psychologists through the ages write that we all strive for a purpose that is greater than we are. The humanity contained in such a vision is very compelling and Pink does a good job of linking his ideas to that striving. However, he mixes this very appealing concept with his ill-defined view of what is in fact a well defined, continuously researched science of motivation.

In the end, this book adds more confusion than clarity to a topic that is critically important to the future of our workplaces, indeed, to our society. According to Pink, today’s employees feel constrained and controlled by rewards and reinforcement, as though each word meant the same as the other. He states that Motivation 1.0 was adequate for the caveman and, even now, in highly repetitive jobs, but claims it is woefully inadequate in today’s workplace that depends on high rates of creativity to survive. Is it true that people in the caveman era were not creative? I am sure that the caveman of the television ads, “So easy a caveman can do it” fame would be offended.  Imagine the ‘thinking outside the box’ caveman who came upon the act of fire starting, and then repeated until finally controlling fire.

 Accidental and serendipitous, or novel problem solving? How did we get to where we are today if not for highly creative individuals, most of whom worked in companies that used the very “If you do this, then you get that” approach that Pink says is precisely wrong for the 21st Century? Indeed, the workplaces of today are often more complex, requiring greater variance in problem solving, fast action, and creative effort, as well as repetitive tasks done with viligence and incredible attention to detail.  Creativity is needed as is repetitive task completion. We must know what we really need more of if we are to be competitive in this modern world.  The way to define what is needed (in this case, creative acts or repetitive acts) comes from an understanding of the outcomes desired, and how reinforcement supports and sustains needed patterns of behavior. Contrary to what Pink asserts in his book, the surprising truth about what motivates us is that reinforcement always works, but not always as it is intended. 

The science of behavior has validated that fact in thousands of research studies over the last century.  You don’t always get more of the behavior you reward, but you always get more of any behavior that is reinforced.  That is true today and it was true thousands of years ago.  If creative behavior is reinforced, you (the company, the person) will do more of it.  Count on it.  When work environments are properly arranged to produce positive reinforcers for highly productive, creative outcomes, they always do produce such outcomes. The operating system on which behavior depends is the same today as it was in ancient times.  We are still living in a Motivation 1.0 world.  Motivation is the system that we must understand.

There is no ‘new system of motivation’—what was real about the principles of motivation in the caveman’s era is true today. Pink shifts from motivation, the science of learning, to talking about methods of ‘using’ motivational properties to get what is wanted. There is no Motivation 3.0 world that operates differently in this century because we need different behaviors. There is only motivation. Call it 1.0 or 3.0, if you wish.  What is needed is a clear understanding of the science of behavior, and how to arrange motivational systems, clearly understood, to produce the behaviors needed in complex settings. Pink says the “carrot and stick” approach worked well in the 20th century.  It never worked well—and it is no system of motivation.  It is a coercive technique of managing others that uses threat and fear to get what is wanted. It is based on a very faulty understanding of motivation as a way to accelerate and sustain human excellence. Many great things were accomplished in the 20th century but it wasn’t because businesses used rewards well.  Today, businesses still use concepts that produce inefficient and ineffective management practices.  I have documented some of these in my latest book, Oops: 13 Management Practices that Waste Time and Money.  

 Businesses did not use the science of behavior to design and manage processes, policies and management practices a thousand years ago and are still not doing it today.  There are new examples every day where catastrophic failures have been produced because business and government failed to use reinforcement and rewards properly.  Enron, the Wall Street bailouts and the economic stimulus did not work out as desired because of improperly designed contingencies of reinforcement. The motivational system that Pink advances ignores the science of behavior—a science that advances by increasing its understanding of the fundamentals -- the laws of behavior. Modern life has not changed the laws of behavior.  Have the laws of gravity been changed by modern life?  Did quantum physics change gravity? Do some objects respond to Physics 1.0 (Newtonian) and others only to Physics 3.0 (Quantum Physics)?  The laws of gravity haven’t changed and the laws of human behavior have not changed either. 

Our understanding of both is what has changed. Pink never adequately addresses the problem of where intrinsic motivation comes from.  To say that people are “intrinsically motivated purpose maximizers” is hardly prescriptive. I can tell you from 40 years of experience, where organizations understand the science of behavior, and use positive reinforcement and rewards consistent with that science, such practices not only produce high-performing organizations but organizations where people love their work—they talk about the intrinsic value and purpose that they give to their work.  It matters not whether they are doing highly repetitive work or are working to create new products and services. 

The laws of behavior work for all. While I understand some of Pink’s vision of a more effective and efficient workplace, I think his solution is confusing and wrong-headed.  In a future Blog, I will have more to say about what we know about ensuring creativity at work. Read Drive Me Crazy Part 2  Search "motivation" on this blog to read more.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.