Daniel Pink on Getting Employee Engagement All Wrong

There’s a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between what science knows – the science around human motivation – and what business does, and the result is disastrous for the economy, for businesses, and for human beings. This, according to Daniel Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Motivation 2.0

The author calls the old business understanding of what drives us Motivation 2.0: without extrinsic motivators of rewards and punishments, people at work will be unmotivated, aimless and unproductive. Thus, the science of management: employees and teams need to be motivated and managed externally.

And Motivation 2.1 isn’t much better, despite talk around flexibility and empowerment.

“.. .consider the very notion of ‘empowerment.’ It presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees.”

Pink argues that not only does Motivation 2.0 not work in the new economy, it does great harm. Backed by rich research from various fields the author gives examples of how the misuse of extrinsic rewards, so common in business, impedes creativity, stifles personal satisfaction and turns play into work. After basic material needs are met, the quid pro quo of if/then rewards–if you do this, I’ll give you that–saps the juice from the job.

One of the most fascinating examples of this in the book is research done by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School. Prof. Amabile and colleagues asked a number of artists to select twenty of their works, ten of which were non-commissioned and ten of which were commissioned. A panel of curators and art experts, knowing nothing of the nature of the research, was then asked to rate each work on creativity and technical skill. And – as you guessed – while the skill ratings were equal, the commissioned works consistently rated lower on creativity. The commission turned the artists’ play into work.


Motivation 3.0 stems from the understanding that we, as human beings, are intrinsically motivated to take on responsibility, to look for creative and intellectual challenges and to solve problems. We are self-directed and work best when we have three things:

– Autonomy: the ability to control aspects of our time, tasks, techniques, and teams

– The Opportunity for Mastery

– Purpose: a connection to something larger than ourselves

These are the factors which create real employee engagement.

Then why is it so hard for business to move to Motivation 3.0 – nourishing employees’ intrinsic motivations instead of “managing” employees through carrots and sticks? After all, the research, while growing, isn’t new. Some of these findings have been around since the 1940s.

I believe it’s a matter of trust – “managers” aren’t ready to trust their teams’ or employees’ intrinsic motivation to do good and creative work. If the motivation is extrinsic – rewards like money and promotions, or punishments like docked pay – they can control it. If the motivation is intrinsic, managers have to trust their employees. It’s that simple, if not that easy, and Drive speaks to the heart of these issues in a rich and readable way.