Motivation, Performance & Purpose: Lessons from 50 Years of Behavioral Science - Dan Pink -

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Motivation, Performance & Purpose: Lessons from 50 Years of Behavioral Science – Dan Pink

What does science tell us about what motivates people? We are all technically experts on motivation, because we’re all human beings.

The Problem with the Carrot and the Stick

Explicit knowledge—we know that we know something (the capital of France is Paris). Implicit knowledge is when we are scarcely aware that we know something—we just know that something will happen, knowledge that can be obtained within milliseconds.

All of us have implicit knowledge about motivation. We all know that when we reward a type of behavior, you get more of it. When you punish it, you get less of it. Science has determined that these reactions are true—sometimes.

A research experiment showed that groups that are paid more will perform better when it comes to a mechanical task. But once a task called for rudimentary cognitive skills, a larger reward lead to poorer performance.

  • If/Then Rewards—50 years of social science tells us that these are great for simple and short term work. Algorithmic tasks—it’s like a recipe. Do these seven things, there’s the end in sight and it’s done. These rewards are great for these tasks. But these rewards are terrible for complex and long-term tasks. Very narrow view in our focus.
  • This idea hasn’t worked its way into organisations.
  • Problem is when we try to apply if/then rewards to complex situations that require broad view. When we see it fail we think we need a new approach—sweeter carrots and sharper sticks. But that’s not right.

Fact: Money is a motivator. Some people that learn about emotional intelligence think that intrinsic motivators are what matters—the sense of belonging, meaning—so I can scrimp on the pay and recompense them in units of bliss. Bad idea. Humans are attuned to the idea of fairness in terms of internal equity and external equity. If two people are doing the same work but aren’t being paid the same, then the one that doesn’t get paid as much is demotivated. You’ve got to pay people enough.

  • A very American way of thought is to get people thinking more about money. That works for algorithmic work.
  • If it’s more complex work, you get them to think about the work. How do you get people to think about the work? Pay people enough to take the issue of money off of the table.

Three Key Motivators for Long-Term Motivation


What is management? We take this word too seriously. Management is a technology from the 1850s designed to get compliance. There are lots of times where we simply need compliance but more and more we need engagement. Human beings don’t engage by being managed or controlled. The technology for engagement is self-direction.

7/10 people in the US workforce aren’t engaged in their work. Why? We’re using the wrong tech. We’re trying to manage people into engagement. You have to use the right technology for the job. You don’t make toast with your iPhone. (If people are skeptical about this, ask them about the best boss they ever had—they won’t answer that the boss was really controlling).

  • Autonomy over a team—company picks a talent, talent picks the team. A produce manager in a grocery store hires a person, and the produce group decides if they like them. Give people some sovereignty over who they get to work with.
  • Autonomy over time—In some companies their vacation policy is to not have a holiday policy. Take as much time as you want. Netflix expense policy—“Act in the company’s best interest.”
  • Autonomy over task—some companies say to go work on whatever you want, just have something to show by Friday. This policy has led to increased productivity.


We like to get better at stuff. Harvard Business School Research—Teresa Amabile’s research on progress and productivity. As part of her research people would receive email at the end of the day, asking if they were you motivated, not motivated.

You don’t know how well you’re doing without feedback. If you want to drive to Oxford and you don’t have an odometer or anyway of measuring how you’re doing, or which direction you go, it’s kind of terrifying. Millennials are raised in a world where they get a lot of feedback all the time, but they’re put into organisations that give feedback maybe once a quarter, once a year. It’s not effective.

  • Weekly one on ones with a twist—standing meetings (physically standing). Faster paced conversation for three weeks (check-ins). 4th week is focused on a particular topic. (What do you love about your job, what barriers are there, long-term career goals). These aren’t replacing formal performance reviews, but it’s a way of giving feedback quickly, focusing both on shortterm and long-term things.
  • I done this software—progress ritual. This is a software that asks you every day what you’ve done during the day. What progress did you make today? At the end of the day, I have to stop and look at the day. I find that days that seem frustrating and annoying are actually days that are very productive.


Purpose is a word that can seem daunting. Free Agent Nation—A book about the rise of people working for themselves. Purpose and purpose— the big picture and the satisfaction in the mundane (big P little p). Am I making a contribution? Am I making a difference? As leaders you need to make sure people are asking themselves these questions.

  • People in the back office, accounting type jobs that don’t see the customers very often, need to know that they are making a contribution. Tear down the wall between the customer and the people doing the work. It could be even a small thing like hearing from them in a letter—raises the salience of small p purpose.
  • Leaders spend too much time talking about how and not enough about why. Try having two fewer conversations about how and two more about why. People knowing why they are doing something (does it make a difference and contribution) is a very powerful performance enhancer.


Think about yourself and the people you love. Do they want to be controlled? Do they want to have a sense of self-direction and sovereignty over what they do and how they do it? Yes. Do you and the people you love want to get better at stuff, want to make progress? Yeah. Do you and the people you love want to know why you’re doing something instead of just how to do it? Yeah. This is not that hard. This is as real as human nature. It’s our nature to want to make progress. It’s our nature to make a contribution and sometimes make a difference. That’s who we are. Conferences like this are a force that say to businesses, “Do you want to do something that goes against the grain of human nature, or do something that goes with the grain of human nature? It’s easier to do things that go with the grain of human nature. I think it’s a way to make us better along with being better off.