The Industrial Revolution codified extrinsic motivation (rewards and punishments) as the way to make sure employees showed up on time and did their jobs well. But today’s jobs don’t look like those of the late 1800s, or even the mid-1900s. Instead of building widgets on an assembly line, we’re building technology and services and experiences. Nonetheless, employers’ approach to motivation remains largely unchanged.

Ten years ago, author and speaker Daniel Pink made a splash with his best-selling book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”. In it, he put forth a novel idea: that creating a work environment centered on autonomy, mastery, and purpose – also known as “intrinsic motivation” – improves employees’ performance more than external rewards like bonuses or the threat of dismissal.

In the years since then, a handful of forward-thinking companies have built cultures that hinge on intrinsic motivation. And, spoiler alert, those companies tend to thrive. But why is this approach not yet the norm? I sat down with Mr. Pink to learn more about the role intrinsic motivation plays in our own success and in the future of work.

Sarah: Do you believe in the power of intrinsic motivation (and the limited efficacy of carrot-and-stick) as strongly today as you did 10 years ago when “Drive” was published?

Daniel: Absolutely. What we know is that the more traditional kind of if/then motivators are still pretty good for simple, algorithmic tasks. For short time horizons, those kinds of motivators are effective. But I am convinced even more that they’re really not effective for work that requires creativity, conceptual thinking, judgment, and discernment. Things that involve more interactions with people.

You don’t want people focused on the reward for those kinds of things. You want them focused on the work, and subsequent research has come out confirming that. I also think that changes in the labor market have confirmed this, in a way. If you look at the labor market, whether it’s Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, or Sydney, there is a decline in routine white-collar work and an increase in more complex, creative, non-heuristic white-collar work.

Sarah: Some of those markets are so hyper-competitive that companies are going off the deep end in terms of salaries and perks. I get why, but now I wonder if that’s really the most effective recruiting strategy. Do companies that focus on intrinsic motivation have a leg up in the war for talent?

Have tech perks gone too far?

Daniel: Oh yeah. Here’s the thing: if you think about it from the perspective of the talent, you feel like you’re in demand. You have a choice of workplaces. Compensation will be a factor in deciding where you go. There’s no question about that. A competitive salary is just table stakes.

But the people who are intrinsically motivated to do amazing work don’t make career decisions based solely on salary and perks. They choose a job because they’ll get to work with great people. Or they’ll get to use their strengths. Or it’s a place where they can accomplish something meaningful. A place where they can learn and grow as a person.

Those are the real differentiators for the most sought-after employees. Again, the baseline compensation is rising. And the fact that baseline compensation can include shiny objects like backrubs and ping-pong tables is a little bit of a head fake. There is zero evidence that on-tap kombucha is the key to breakthrough products and services, satisfied employees, or company growth.

There is zero evidence that on-tap kombucha is the key to breakthrough products and services, satisfied employees, or company growth.

Sarah: One of the ingredients for intrinsic motivation is autonomy. In order for autonomy to succeed in the workplace, individuals and teams need to be self-directed. Unfortunately, not everybody has a great capacity for self-direction (or maybe they did once, but it’s been conditioned out of them by schools, parents, etc.). How can company leaders help their people strengthen their self-direction muscle?

Daniel: It’s a bit like learning a second language. If you acquire that language when you’re young, you’ll speak it fluently without an accent. If you acquire the language of self-direction early, you’ll operate on it fluently and without an accent. If you’re learning self-direction as a second language when you’re 25 or 30, it’s a little harder to learn and a little creakier, but people can still master it.

Human beings are, by their nature, self-directed. You can see it in kids. Are they curious? Are they autonomous? Of course they are. I think that’s true for every kid. Not being self-directed is learned behavior. Certain social structures and certain social expectations can cause that muscle to atrophy.

When it comes to strengthening the self-direction muscle, you have to meet people where they are. One simple thing leaders can do is to make fewer statements and ask more questions. “What do you think of this goal that we’re pursuing? How do you think we’re best able to meet these goals? What are the three things that should be your priorities in meeting these goals?” Again, certain people will respond to that better than others. But it’s a good starting place.

Giving people feedback on how they’re doing can also promote self-direction. This is where the ideas of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, are not separate entities. They work together. It’s a dynamic system. Let’s take mastery. If mastery is getting better at something that matters, the way you get better is by getting feedback from those around you.

So if you’re a leader and you’re having regular conversations with your people, you’re giving them specific feedback on how to get better. You’re in what seems to be a constant conversation with them on what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, how they can get better. That will strengthen their self-direction muscle. A better sense of mastery will make them more self-directed.

The same thing is true with purpose. One reason people aren’t self-directed is that they’re not sure which direction to go. So, if a manager explains, “This is how your piece fits into the big picture of what we’re doing; here’s how your piece makes a difference in the world,” that strengthens the self-direction muscle, too.

In terms of autonomy, leaders can choose to give their people a goal then step back. You want to reach a point where you can say “Here’s the result we need. How you achieve it is up to you.”

Sarah: Research Atlassian conducted recently showed that the autonomy to customize the way we work improves job satisfaction. In fact, influence over the way you work is a common thread amongst high-performing teams. Yet few companies allow for this. Do employee morale and satisfaction simply lose out to efficiency and control? Or is there some other force at work here?

Daniel: We shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it is to create a work environment that hinges on autonomy or self-direction, and how easy it is to create an environment focused on extrinsic rewards. Again, paying obscene performance bonuses is really easy. We know how to do that.

But how do I create an environment with the right kind of autonomy for one person, which will be different from the amount and type of autonomy that each other person on the team needs? As a leader, am I tuned in to my people enough that I can afford to be less regimented and less formal? That’s really hard to do. There isn’t a recipe I can follow.

We know how to offer consumers a double-foam decaf two-pump vanilla latte. But we don’t know how to do that for employees. We’re only at the primitive stages of even recognizing that should be a thing. You can look at that as a problem or as an opportunity. I think there are great opportunities for smart firms to reinvent how we do these kinds of things.

The my-size-fits-me approach is happening in small pockets, just outside of formal structures. There are plenty of companies that mandate you’re physically present from 9am to 5pm. But there’s also an enlightened manager out there who has said to her team of seven people, “Do what you need to do. I’ll watch out for you.”

These things that start off as subversive, but effective, end up being company policy years later.

When companies ban remote work in the name of collaboration, what are they really saying?

Sarah: Speaking of productively subversive, let’s round this out by talking about remote work, which is being driven underground in some places. On one hand, we have big-name companies making headlines because they’ve banned remote work, at least “officially”. But then other companies are embracing it to the point of being remote-only. How is this tug-of-war going to play out?

Daniel: It’s part of a broader reckoning about many aspects of work, and sometimes we go too far to the extreme. For at least one of those big-name companies, banning remote work was an overreaction. They were struggling, and remote was not the culprit. But executives got frustrated and felt the need to change something.

Getting back to the principles of intrinsic motivation, with remote work, you do have autonomy. You have sovereignty over how you configure your day. That’s really important for doing good work and reducing your stress level. The trick is not to shortchange the other principles. With mastery, you have to make sure remote employees get feedback on how they’re doing so they can get better at their job. With purpose, you have to make sure they understand how their work is making a difference. It’s all possible, it just might be a bit harder in a remote environment.

To me, it’s a matter of each company finding the right balance. We shouldn’t frame remote work as a binary choice.

5 questions about motivation with Daniel Pink...