The Book in a Nutshell
What is the key to motivating ourselves and others in the 21st century? The answer, Daniel Pink suggests, is a far cry from the traditional view of carrots and sticks. Instead, as economic development and socio-technological change have swept the world, humans are now strongly motivated by our third drive: our need for autonomy, mastery and purpose. The quicker we and businesses recognise it the better.
Book Summary: The Key Ideas
#1: The fall of carrots and sticks. A sole focus on reward and punishment as motivator isn’t fit for the 21st century. Indeed, when structured in the wrong way, rewards can even undermine motivation, stunt performance and stifle creativity.
#2: Type I and Type X behaviour. Human beings perform and feel better when motivated by intrinsic factors, most importantly, autonomy, mastery and purpose. Type I (intrinsic) behaviour embraces these factors, while Type X behaviour focuses on extrinsic factors.
#3: The four T’s of autonomy. Autonomy in task, time, technique and team drives improved performance, satisfaction and creativity.
#4: The power of mastery. To be truly engaging, work should provide experiences that produce a “flow” state and tasks that are in the “Goldilocks zone”.
#5: A purpose-driven future. A long-run objective that connects us to a greater purpose than oneself can take the autonomous pursuit of mastery to the next level.
Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail
Key Idea #1: The Fall of Carrots and Sticks
In our very early days, the underlying assumption was that we were driven by survival. But we also had a second drive: to seek reward and avoid punishment.
Daniel Pink calls this second drive Motivation 2.0, and it’s been key to economic progress over the last two centuries.
In the 1900s, Frederick Taylor took this view of motivation in what he called “scientific management”. Under this perspective, workers were considered parts of a machine. Desired behaviour would be encouraged via rewards and undesired behaviour regulated via punishment.
But the emergence of humanistic psychology in the mid-1900s, led by Abraham Maslow, created new resistance to Motivation 2.0. And as we shift into the 21st century, Motivation 2.0 is no longer compatible with what we do, how we think about what we do, and how we do what we do.
The reality is that once we get past the role of salary as motivator, carrots and sticks can have the opposite effect. This is known as the Sawyer effect: where extrinsic rewards actually serve to undermine our interest in our work, performance and creativity.
“When people use rewards to motivate, that’s when they’re most demotivating.”
The Sawyer effect can surface in several ways:
- Extinguishing motivation. Contingent rewards, particularly short-term ones, can have a detrimental effect on intrinsic motivation, as demonstrated in numerous studies.
- Diminishing performance. Various studies suggest raising financial incentives doesn’t always improve performance. Indeed, the evidence points to the opposite.
- Stifling creativity. Rewards can narrow our focus and encourage functional fixedness. That’s helpful where the path is clear, but not so helpful when creativity is required to forge the path.
- Encouraging unhelpful behaviour. Rewards can also crowd out good behaviour, encourage cheating and short-termism, and foster addiction. (Look no further than the dopamine hit of the casino for an example of the dangers of short-term rewards.)
Key Idea #2: Type I and Type X Behaviour
Instead of focusing on reward and punishment, self-determination theory (SDT) argues that we have three innate psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. The theory posits that when these needs are satisfied, we’re more motivated, satisfied and productive, and vice versa if they are not.
As Pink puts it:
“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”
Building on SDT, Pink makes the distinction between what he calls Type X and Type I behaviour:
- Type X (Extrinsic) Behaviour: This is powered by extrinsic desires and is concerned more with the external rewards that an activity’s completion provides. This behaviour is in line with the Motivation 2.0 system that dominates business.
- Type I (Intrinsic) Behaviour: This is concerned more with intrinsic desires and the inherent satisfaction that can be derived from an activity. Type I behaviour can emerge from context and experience, and Type I’s almost always outperform Type X’s in the long run. Type I behaviour also promotes greater mental and physical well-being.
Most importantly, Type I behaviour recognises and embraces the role of autonomy, mastery and purpose as intrinsic motivators.
Key Idea #3: The four T’s of autonomy
Autonomy, Pink argues, is the most important of the three innate psychological needs of SDT. Why? Because it’s how we are made.
“Our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed. […] That’s how we are out of the box. If, at age fourteen or forty-three, we’re passive and inert, that’s not because it’s our nature. It’s because something flipped our default setting.”
Studies have associated autonomous work with greater understanding, better grades, less burnout, greater levels of psychological well-being, improved performance and greater job satisfaction. As a result, Pink believes businesses should be putting less emphasis on management and more emphasis on self-direction.
“Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word “management” onto the linguistic ash heap alongside “icebox” and “horseless carriage.” This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.”
According to Pink, Type I behaviour emerges in work when people have autonomy over the four T’s: their task, their time, their technique, and their team.
- Task: Pink uses the anecdotal examples of the successes of 3M and Google with “20% time” (where 20% of employee time is free for them to work on projects of their choosing for the businesses).
- Time: An excessive focus on input often comes at the expense of real output. “Without sovereignty over our time, it’s nearly impossible to have autonomy over our lives.”
- Technique: Arrangements that give more independence over how to perform jobs generally produce better performance.
- Team: “People working in self-organised teams are more satisfied than those working in inherited teams.”
Instead of assuming people will shirk responsibility, Motivation 3.0 assumes people want to be accountable and will perform better when they have control over task, time, technique, and team.
Key Idea #4: The power of mastery
The pursuit of mastery can be defined as the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
“Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others – sales targets, quarterly returns, standardized test scores, and so on – can sometimes have dangerous side effects.”
Pink recognises that we have a severe lack of engagement in modern workplaces. To be truly engaging, work should provide “autotelic experiences”, or as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it, a state of “flow”.
Work that fosters flow provides clear goals and results, and a transcendent state of absorption in the task at hand. Such activities tend to be “Goldilocks tasks”, neither being too easy so as to diminish interest nor too hard so as to demoralise us.
According to Pink, there are 3 laws of mastery that hold consistent regardless of occupation:
- Mastery is a mindset. Our desire to pursue mastery hinges on whether we have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. The latter holds an openness to failure and learning, embracing continuous improvement.
- Mastery is a pain. Our level of grit and resilience also play a crucial role in our capacity to pursue mastery.
- Mastery is an asymptote. The pursuit of mastery is a process of continuous improvement. You never actually reach “mastery”. The joy is in the pursuit rather than the realisation.
“This is the nature of mastery: Mastery is an asymptote. You can approach it. You can home in on it. You can get really, really close to it. But you can never touch it. Mastery is impossible to realise fully.”
As Pink describes it, “flow is the oxygen of the soul”. Studies show that when we are deprived of it, even over a matter of a few days, we can exhibit signs of anxiety and poor mental health.
Key Idea #5: The future is purpose-driven
Working towards mastery in an autonomous manner can produce a very high level of performance but doing so in service of a greater objective can help us achieve more still.
As economic progress takes holds across the world, people are increasingly pursuing purpose and using profit as a catalyst rather than an objective.
Pink argues that the language we use to frame goals and values can also have a defining impact on this pursuit. That’s why some businesses are actively away from language like “profit” and “power” towards more emotive purpose-based language like “honour”, “truth” and “love”.
Businesses can introduce policies that capitalise on purpose as a motivator. Coupled with autonomy, it can be a particularly effective motivational tool. Pink gives the example of giving workers the autonomy to choose which charities to make corporate donations to.
At the individual level, the role of purpose extends to longer-term aspirations. Studies have found that intrinsic aspirations are associated with higher levels of satisfaction and subjective well-being than extrinsic aspirations which focus more on status and wealth.
You can buy the book here or for further related reading, try:
On the “flow state” and mastery: Flow: The Psychology of Happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
On designing a motivational life: Happiness by Design by Paul Dolan
On building resilience and grit: Grit by Angela Duckworth
On fixed and growth mindsets: Mindset by Carol Dweck