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Book review: 'Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us' by Daniel Pink

'Drive' is short, punchy, energetic and not subtle. Pink is no economist. But even if he overstates his case, he also provides some answers as to why efforts to motivate staff can prove so fruitless.

August 08, 2010|By Stefan Stern

"If I kick my dog (from the front or the back), he will move. And when I want him to move again what must I do? I must kick him again," psychologist Frederick Herzberg wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 1968. But that kind of management produces movement, not motivation, he said.

Daniel Pink's new book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," published by Riverhead, contains no mention of Herzberg, and that rings an alarm bell.

Not that it has any shortage of references to psychological and other academic research.

The author, a speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore from 1995 to 1997 and rapidly acquiring international guru status, does what the best contemporary gurus do.

He breezily assembles a large selection of experts to support his thesis: that businesses have failed to understand what really motivates people, and are thus stuck, deploying ineffective and sometimes even counterproductive measures in a doomed attempt to raise performance.

The book is short, punchy, energetic and not subtle.

It is a counterblast against the idea that extrinsic motivation — often financial incentives — is more effective than intrinsic motivation, which is the desire that comes from within.

The dominant view, the author says, is that "the way to get us moving in the right direction is by dangling a crunchier carrot or wielding a sharper stick."

Pink draws attention to the wealth of research that suggests that as far as human motivation is concerned, something far more interesting and potentially more powerful takes place.

Give human beings the possibility to achieve three things — autonomy, mastery and purpose — and you will have little need for crude incentives.

Under the heading of autonomy, for example, Google Inc. employees are free to spend up to 20% of their time pursuing new projects. He quotes one Google engineer who told the New York Times: "If your 20% idea is a new product, it's usually pretty easy to just find a few like-minded people and start coding away."

At Google, the power of "a few like-minded people" choosing to collaborate should not be underestimated.

Mastery involves people "forgetting themselves in a function," as the poet W.H. Auden put it.

It is required to achieve that elusive quality known as "flow," a term popularized by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. But mastery requires hard work. Again, he suggests, the motivation to commit to sustained effort is more likely to come from within than from without.

Lastly, purpose can play a big part in raising performance. "Purpose maximization is taking its place alongside profit maximization as an aspiration and a guiding principle."

Predictably, Pink points the finger at misguided incentives as having played a big part in the financial crisis. "A bad case of extrinsically motivated myopia," he writes. "The very premise of extrinsic incentives is that we'll always respond rationally to them. But even most economists don't believe that anymore."

Pink is no economist. But he is an engaging writer who challenges and provokes. Even if he overstates his case, he also succeeds in providing some answers as to why managers' efforts to motivate staff can often prove so fruitless.

Stern is a columnist for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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