Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation


Dan Pink is the author of five books about business, work, and management that have sold two million copies worldwide


Dan Pink introduces ‘The Candle Problem’ – attaching a candle to a wall with a box of thumbtacks and matches to that it doesn’t drip. 2 groups try to solve the problem – one is told they are timing to discover norms, while the other is given money if they are in the top 25%. This test consistently shows that the group being given money is 3minutes slower than the other. Other research over 40 years backs up the idea that for most tasks you can’t incentivize people to perform better with money. This is one of the most robust findings from social science, but also the most ignored. There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

Extrinsic motivators do however work well for ’20th century tasks’ – with manual work and simple solutions. The reward narrows their focus towards the answer, and pushes them to solve it quicker. But most modern professionals don’t do this kind of work, they do much more complicated tasks with no easy answer. An MIT study found a similar result – for simple mechanistic tasks a reward improved their performance, but if they required ANY kind of cognitive function the higher reward decreased performance.

Modern psychology is leaning more towards intrinsic motivators – the desire to do more for personal reasons. In the business setting it revolves around

  • autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives
  • mastery – the urge to get better, or develop skills
  • and purpose – the need to do what we do for reasons bigger than ourselves.

Dan’s talk focuses on autonomy. Management is an example that improves compliance, but decreases autonomy for most workers. Modern approaches can increase autonomy – giving people a personal project. Atlassian for example is a software company that makes engineers take a day off their normal work to develop whatever they want – as long as it is unrelated to their normal work and they deliver something by the end of the day. This approach was so successful that they adopted Google’s famous approach, which lets people allocate 20% of their time to personal projects. Around half of Google’s new products come from engineer’s personal projects.

A more extreme approach is ROWE – Results Only Work Environment. People can work whatever hours they want as long as they do the work. This increases autonomy and productivity, and decreases staff turnover.

Dan’s ultimate example was Microsoft Encarta vs Wikipedia. Encarta was build by well paid professionals and managers, incentivized with standard extrinsic motivators. Wikipedia was built by unpaid (autonomous) volunteers for fun, and because they believed in the project. In 1999 no economist would have tipped that Encarta’s model would be overtaken by Wikipedia’s, but it has.

If we get past the simplistic ‘carrots vs sticks’ ideology, and allow people to be more motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose, we can make our businesses stronger and maybe change the world.

9 thoughts on “Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation

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