Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us


What motivates people to do what they do? How can we provide the proper incentives for people to conduct research, to innovate, and to perform their jobs well? These questions became especially relevant during the Advancement of Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) Annual Meeting in San Jose, California this year. What motivates scientists around the world to conduct their research? For some of the women scientists in developing countries with whom I spoke, any incentive to do research was met with the numerous hurdles they faced, from the lack of funding and available grants to being stigmatized as one of the few women pursuing higher education and science. Yet they continue to pursue scientific research.

How can this be explained?

I’ve been in the academy long enough to know that “loving” one’s research is too simplistic of an explanation. Recent debates about the implication of using this explanation can have a dark side in justifying the existence of an underpaid and exploited labor force in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This kind of justification would not be possible without a strong buy-in from stakeholders that suffering (simply bearing it) is part of the process — whether it’s conducting research, working as a research assistant in a science lab or serving overseas in a longterm mission. The idea that one is not “loving’ the process enough and is therefore to blame for raising questions, concerns and injustices that contribute to the suffering is a consequence of the insidious part of this kind of justification. It’s often hard to distinguish between the fine line of persisting and being resilient and knowing when to make a drastic change or walk away. After all, is it fair to expect people to be intrinsically motivated when extrinsic conditions are to too harsh? Are intrinsic motivations enough to produce innovations like Google and other revolutionizing innovations?

Without getting into the debates about the problem of using “love” or other types of intrinsic motivating factors to discuss labor, I wanted to see what the research in behavioral economics, psychology, management theory and the social sciences says about the topic, and more specifically, what career analyst Daniel Pink concludes, drawing from extensive scientific research, in his book.

Here’s what I found interesting from the book:

1) Extrinsic rewards can help you deliver fast results. However, in the long run, it can actually be detrimental to your desired outcome.

Experiment: Two Swedish economists wanted to see if paying citizens to donate blood would reduce the country’s blood supply. What did they do? The found 153 women interested in donating blood. They divided the women into 3 groups. They told the first group that blood donation was voluntary. Second group would receive about US $7. The third group had two choices: either a 50-kronor payment with an option to donate the amount to a children’s cancer charity. Of the first group, 52% of the women went ahead and donated. In the second group, only 30 percent gave blood. In the third group, rates were about as high as the first group at 53% who opted to donate blood.

It might be counterintuitive, but providing extrinsic rewards in this case of an altruistic act was counterproductive. Of course,  not all extrinsic rewards are equal. Pink notes that in other studies, when donors were given the option of paid time off, this actually increased the number of blood donors.

Some other problems with providing an extrinsic reward as a strong motivating factor include encouraging people to take shortcuts or be corrupt or engage in other types of undesirable behavior.

By the same token, using extrinsic motivating factors to discourage certain types of behavior did not always lead to a desired outcome. In another experiment in Israel at a  daycare center, economists recorded the number of parents who picked up their child late. When a punishment was unleashed on parents who were late, such as a monetary fine, there was actually a steady increase of parents coming late. Existing literature did not account for the possibility of an increase in the behavior being punished.

This discovery extends to individuals who want a short fix, to companies that only invest in short-term goals, and to addicts who hone in on short-term gain. The problem, as Pink concludes, is manifold. It can extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, crowd out good behavior, encourage short cuts, cheating, unethical behavior, encourage addicts, and foster short-term thinking.

If you are going to offer extrinsic rewards, Pink suggests that you offer it only after the task is complete and in a surprising way. Some of the highest levels of creativity were produced by people who received a reward as a bonus.

If you’re a manager, teacher or anyone looking to elicit desired behavior from a group of people, Pink makes the following  recommendations:

a) Consider nontangible rewards such as praise and positive feedback

b) Provide useful information. While controlling extrinsic motivators can slow down creativity, informational motivators can foster it. Give people meaningful information about their work. I have often found that in my own work, the most valuable feedback was precise and detailed and included positive and constructive advice.

c) Offer a rationale for why the task is necessary.

d) Acknowledge that the task may be boring and show your empathy for others.

e) Allow people to complete the task their own way. Although good work can be produced from micromanaging behavior, I have found through observations and my own experience, that excellent work is the product of an environment conducive to creativity and autonomy. That’s why the Google model works and Silicon Valley is one of the global hubs of innovation. This was not the result of overbearing bosses.

2) Pink breaks down behavior into two groups. It goes back to Meyer Friedman, a cardiologist, who ran an office in San Francisco. Among his heart patients, he distinguished between groups. He found that there were those who had excessive competition drive, aggressiveness and impatience. These people were likely to develop heart disease ore than other patients. He called this behavior Type A. Type B people were less harried by life or hostile when life did not go their way. Friedman and Roseman found that Type B people were just as intelligent, but they wore their ambition differently. Type B people, they found, had a lower risk of heart disease.

In the meantime, a management professor Douglas McGregor at MIT, who earned his degree from Harvard in psychology, began conducting research on faulty assumptions about human behavior. The prevailing view at corporations was that people disliked work and they had to be coerced and punished to do adequate work. He came with a theory about two different approaches to management. In Theory X, one’s managerial technique would produce mediocrity. This was focused on extrinsic rewards. By contrast, Theory Y, which Pink revises as his own and dubs “Type I” is driven by intrinsic desires, which is more concerned with inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.

Pink argues that if we want to strengthen our organizations, we must shift to Type I behavior. Type I’s are driven by freedom, challenge and purpose. Other gains, including extrinsic rewards, are just icing on the cake.

Pink concludes that Type I’s almost always outperform Type X in the long run. Focusing on short term gain is not sustainable in the long run.

On the other hand, Type I’s are in it for the long haul because of their internal desires to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplishing lasting change.

Here’s the key to fostering more Type I behavior. It is not born, but made.

Just as the next Einstein can only innovate within a conducive environment, greater Type I behavior depends on environments and leadership which encourage this type of behavior.

What are some practical tips to encourage this type of behavior?

I’m especially interested in how to create these conditions at the organizational level.

3a) Create the conditions for greater autonomy.

Great quote: “The idea of management of people rather than management of, say, supply chains is built on certain assumptions about the basic natures of those being managed. It presumes that to take action or move forward…we need a prod….But is that really our fundamental nature? When we enter the world, are we wired to be passive and inert? Or are we wried to be active and engaged?”

Thus, a whole body of literature and research is built around this self-determination theory (SDT) — that autonomy is a basic human need and that people are naturally drawn to it. As Pink writes, mediocrity is expensive and autonomy can be the antidote. Autonomy, whether it hinges on flexible hours or leading projects or being encouraged to give feedback that shape company policy, contribute to greater job satisfaction.

b) Encourage Mastery Mindset

This involves changing the view that intelligence is something that is inborn. Pink writes that in fact, mastering any subject or task involves what Angela Duckworth has popularized as “grit” — the perseverance and passion for long term goals and practice, practice practice. You have to put in effort on days even when you don’t feel like it.

c) Maximize on Purpose

Pink uses the example of TOMS as an organization that operates on this principle. The aims are not to chase profit, which relies on short-term thinking, but on purposeful values. Profit is a catalyst rather than primary objective.

Finally, Pink urges us to follow science. He argues that there is often a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Scientists, he writes, “offer us a sharper and more accurate account of both human performance and the human condition.” The truths they’ve discovered, that “if-then” rewards are not only ineffective, but detrimental in the long run, need to be taken seriously in the corporate world. Science shows that high performance is the result of the third drive – our intrinsic desire to “direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities and to make a contribution.” Humans are designed to be active and engaged. “Repairing the mismatch and bringing our understanding of motivation in the 21st century is more than an essential move for business. It’s an affirmation of our humanity.” 

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