Dan Pink: An interview by Bob Morris

Dan Pink

Pink is the author of several provocative, bestselling books about the changing world of work. His latest is DRiVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which uses 40 years of behavioral science to overturn the conventional wisdom about human motivation and offer a more effective path to high performance. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future charts the rise of right-brain thinking in modern economies and describes the six abilities individuals and organizations must master in an outsourced, automated age. A Whole New Mind is a long-running New York Times and BusinessWeek bestseller that has been translated into 21 languages. Pink’s first book, Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, was a Washington Post bestseller that Publishers Weekly says it “has become a cornerstone of employee-management relations.”

His articles on business and technology appear in many publications, including The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Wired, where he is a contributing editor. A free agent himself, Dan held his last real job in the White House, where he served from 1995 to 1997 as chief speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore. He also worked as an aide to U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich and in other positions in politics and government. He received a BA, with honors, from Northwestern University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and a JD from Yale Law School. To his lasting joy, he has never practiced law.

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Morris: Before focusing on your books, a few general questions. First, to what extent (if any) did your association with national leaders such as Vice President Gore and Labor Secretary Robert Reich influence your thinking about the American workplace?

Pink: In those jobs, I got an incredible chance to learn a lot. For instance, I was able to visit workplaces with both of my bosses — and that gave me a great up-close view of what was going on in America. Since speechwriting is at the juncture of policy and communications, I was able to get a handle on issues like the minimum wage and workforce training and retraining and economic policy more broadly. And at the Labor Department especially, I was fortunate enough to spend my time thinking and writing about these sorts of issues, which I found fascinating.  That said, my former bosses definitely don’t agree with everything I’ve written since I went out on my own 13 years ago.

Morris: In 1924, William L. McKnight (then CEO of 3M) suggested that, “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” In my opinion, that observation seems more relevant to the workplace now than it did to the workplace 86 years ago. Do you agree?

Pink: Absolutely. McKnight was ahead of his time.

Morris: One evening long ago in Concord (MA), Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a public lecture on the principles of transcendentalism. Afterward, he responded to questions. An elderly farmer in bib overalls, hat in hand, stood up. “All that’s very interesting, sir, but how do you transcend an empty stomach?” It seems to me that at least some of the core concepts in Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs remain relevant. Your own opinion?

Pink: I agree. In fact, I say several times in DRiVE that if people aren’t being paid enough, if they’re not being compensated adequately, if they can’t support their families, you’re not going to get any real motivation.  People do have to move past the struggle for survival before they can start fully reckoning with things like intrinsic motivation and transcend the day-to-day.  The amazing thing is that a stunning number of people — well more than at any point in human civilization — have reached this level.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Free Agent Nation, you conclude each chapter with what you call “The Box” that consists of four components: four “The Crux,” “The Factoid,” “The Quote,” and “The Word.” What is the primary function of “The Box” and of each of the four components?

Pink: I wanted to make the book more accessible.  As much as it pains writers, some people don’t read every single word of every single page of a book. And some people don’t read books in order. For these folks, I tried to design a way for them to get the main ideas of each chapter. Likewise, sometimes when I read books, I’ll read a few chapters, set it aside for what turns out to be a few weeks, and then pick it up again. I always want a refresher course — like on television programs that begin, “On our previous episode . . . ” — to get me back into the book.

Morris: Here is a rather lengthy excerpt in which you focus on what drove the creation and development of the free agent nation ten years ago: “Four ingredients were essential: 1) the social contract of work-in which employees traded loyalty for security-crumbled; 2) individuals needed a large company less, because the means of production-that is, the tools necessary to create wealth-went from expensive, huge, and difficult for one person to operate to cheap, houseable, and easy for one person to operate; 3) widespread, long-term prosperity allowed people to think of work as a way not only to make money, but also to make meaning; 4) the half-life of organizations began shrinking, assuring that most individuals will outlive any organization for which they work.”

Here’s my question: What are the essential ingredients today?

Pink: I think they’re the same. Indeed, these forces have intensified. Long-term job security is even less prevalent than 10 years ago.  Technology is shockingly more powerful. (Remember: FAN came out before broadband was widespread and before iPhones, Blackberries, YouTube, and Facebook were around.)  As we discussed before, the search for meaning continues — in part because of the aging of the Baby Boom generation.  And the cycle times of organizations have quickened.  It’s amazing, really.

Morris: Specifically how have America’s new independent workers “transformed” the way people live, not only in the United States but also elsewhere throughout the world?

Pink: I think it goes back to one of those four forces. These workers have both shaped and reflected the new social contract of work. It used to be that organizations gave security in exchange for individuals giving loyalty.  The new social contract is that organizations give opportunity in exchange for individuals giving talent.  That approach is most robust in the US, but becoming more prevalent elsewhere. What’s also interesting, and somewhat related to this, is even people with “traditional” jobs are more like free agents.  They accept and bear much more of the risk. In some sense, the boundary between who’s independent and who’s traditionally employed is being blurred.

Morris: There are some people who simply are not cut out to be free agents. They are willing to work hard, but strict supervision.  They are much more productive of they have a time clock and a “boss.” How will they survive as the number of traditional jobs seems to be decreasingly more rapidly, especially given the current economy?

Pink: Let’s remember that most people in the U.S. workforce are not self-employed or entrepreneurs.  Most people still hold traditional jobs — and that will likely remain true for a long time. What worries me is that we’re leaving huge numbers of people behind — not because they’re self-employed rather than employed — but because they lack the skills and social capital to make it in a 21st century economy.

Morris: As the number of free agents increases, the support structure (at least in the larger organizations) will be reduced in nature and extent.  (This is one of the core issues of the health care debate).  How will the rising population of free agents find alternatives to the “work infrastructure” that has been at the heart of our life for so long?

Pink: They’re doing it already. Professional associations are growing.  New institutions like the Freelancers Union in New York are emerging.  Entrepreneurs are opening co-working sites for people on their own. As I mentioned before, individuals now have as much computing and communications power as entire multinationals did not too long ago.  The health care issue is trickier — since even the health care reform package that’s going into effect considers the norm to be getting coverage from an employer. But it’s a step in the right direction.

Morris: Now please focus on your latest book, DRiVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. What “truth” did your research reveal that you found most “surprising”? Why?

Pink: I was surprised by how vast the research was on human motivation — and how much it overturned orthodoxies I didn’t even realize were orthodoxies.

Morris: Knowing then when writing Free Agent Nation what you know now about human motivation, would be changed most significantly in the material you present in it?

Pink: I’m not sure. In my interviews with people who’d left large organizations to work for themselves, they mentioned a lot of the elements that I later discovered in the science — particularly, their push for freedom, their concern about craft, and their desire to connect to something larger than themselves.

Morris: I have the same question about the material in A Whole New Mind. What (if anything) would be different if you knew when writing it what you know now about human motivation?

Pink: Not sure about that one either — because the books are somewhat linked. After I wrote A Whole New Mind — about the shift from “left-brain” abilities to “right-brain” ones — lots of people asked me about how to motivate people to do this sort of work. I didn’t have a clue. So I began looking at what turned out to be an absolute treasure trove of research on human motivation. That exploration turned into DRiVE.


Morris: In addition to biological motivation and environmental motivation, Harry Harlow suggests that there is another motivation to be found in “the performance of the task.” This seems to have profound implications, especially with regard to delegation, alignment, and especially incentive-and-reward policies.

Pink: Absolutely. Human beings are a mix of drives. We have a biological drive. We eat when we’re hungry, drink when we’re thirsty, and so on.  We also have a reward and punishment drive. We often respond exquisitely to these external stimuli. If you reward behavior, you typically get more of it. If you punish behavior, you typically get less of it. But as Harlow pointed out — and as all of us know — human beings also have a third drive. We do things because they’re interesting, because we enjoy them, because they’re the right things to do, because they contribute to the world.

Morris: Given your response to the previous question, what are the major misconceptions about what really motivates attitudes, decisions, and behavior?

Pink: In business, we stop at the second drive. We often treat people like more evolved, high-class donkeys — enticing them with carrots and threatening them with sticks. But if we let in the third drive, we can do much better — especially at the creative, conceptual work I talk about in A Whole New Mind.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Drive, you suggest the need for “a new operating system.” What are the nature and extent of the “need” to which you refer? Does this mean totally replacing the “operating system” in place or merely upgrading it?

Pink: This is connected to the drives. Just as computers have operating systems, so do societies and economies.  Running beneath our laws, economic arrangements, and business practices is a set a of assumptions and protocols about how the world works and how humans behave. And over time our operating systems have gotten more sophisticated. Motivation 1.0 presumed that humans were biological creatures, struggling for survival. Motivation 2.0, its upgrade, presumed that humans responded mainly to rewards and punishments in their environment. Motivation 3.0, the upgrade that I think we need right now, recognizes that humans also have a third drive—to learn, to create, and to better the world.  There’s a mountain of science that shows that especially for creative, conceptual tasks, Motivation 3.0 — which is centered on autonomy, mastery, and purpose — is a far better route to high performance.

Morris: With regard to the “seven deadly flaws” of the carrot and stick strategy, which is most serious? Why?

Pink: They’re all-important, but let me point out two. The first is that “If-then” rewards — “If you do this, then you get that” — narrow people’s vision. They blinker their view and inhibit their creativity. They other is that “If-then” rewards limit people’s vision. They can promote short-term thinking and a dangerous form of myopia.

Morris: Please explain the relevance to human motivation of each of these three elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Pink: Autonomy is the urge to direct our own lives — and have greater control over when we work, what we do, how we do it, and with whom we do it.  Mastery is our desire to get better at something that matters — to make progress.  And purpose is our yearning to connect what we do to something greater than ourselves.  These are the three elements of enduring motivation, particularly for creative work.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question. What can supervisors do to support and sustain a “flow-friendly” environment?

Pink: Lots of things. They can help people do work that uses their strengths. They can provide ample autonomy — because nobody has ever been “managed” into flow.  And they can help people both make progress and see their progress.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between Motivation 2.0 and Motivation 3.0?

Pink: Their goals. The goal of Motivation 2.0 is compliance. The goal of Motivation 3.0 is engagement. Those are two very different things.

Morris: In Drive, you suggest the supremacy of internal motivation, an “intrinsic one.”  I do not dispute its superiority over traditional methods of motivation.  But, again, there are people who may need the other.  What about these people?  If they become free agents out of necessity, where will they find their motivation?

Pink: This goes back to your Emerson anecdote. If I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, finding flow is a second order issue.  But once people surmount that concern for survival, other factors can play a much more powerful role in enduring motivation.

Morris: For management teams as well as for individuals, replacing the Type X mindset with the Type I mindset is extremely difficult. I think that one of your most important insights in the book is that the motivation to complete that process will be driven by what you characterize as “our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose.” Here’s my question: How do you explain the fact that so many C-level executives still don’t “get it” in terms of what really motivates those for whom they are directly responsible?

Pink: It’s a huge issue. But there are a few reasons, all of which connect. One is that this is how we always have done things. And both people and organizations tend to think the status quo is somehow “natural” and that change is weird and dangerous.  Another is that external rewards are easy. They’re easy to structure, easy to implement, easy to measure.  Intrinsic motivators are a lot tougher. And the third is that carrots and sticks often seem to work in the short-term — almost like a sugar rush seems to “works” in the short-term. People respond. These “if-then” motivators cause activity. They just rarely lead to creativity.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Pink: I was hoping you’d ask me whether the Motivation 3.0 approach applied to sales, where compensation is based on commissions. And my answer would be “Yes.” Then I’d get to tell you about companies like System Source in Baltimore and RedGate Software in Cambridge, UK, that have eliminated commissions — and seen sales increase. Both companies changed went to a salary system for their sales force (along with some profit sharing) and that has boosted collaboration since salespeople aren’t pitted against each other. Customer satisfaction has increased because the salesperson is seen as the customer’s agent, rather than its adversary. And by not having to police an elaborate, always-gameable compensation scheme — who brought in what piece of business? how do we split this commission? — management freed up time to do better, more valuable work.

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Pink invites those who read this interview to check out the resources at http://www.danpink.com/.


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