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Review: Drive: the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us February 12, 2011

Posted by jiazou in Uncategorized.
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Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink.

Reviewed by Jia Zou, EECS, Ph.D. class of 2011

This book identifies the factors that motivates people. The author first presents the old method of motivation (what Pink calls motivation 2.0), where managers try to reward desired behaviors and punishes undesirable behaviors. It then argues that at this day and age, motivation 2.0 is no longer enough. Instead, a new method of motivation is needed (motivation 3.0).

In particular, three main factors that affect people’s motivation and performance are identified: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. People are more creative when given autonomy on when/where/what kind of work is performed. People perform better at their jobs when they can get into a “flow” and are able to concentrate on their job for a long period of time. Finally, people must feel a sense of purpose while doing their job. This is what makes motivational speeches effective.

Based on these three factors, Pink provides a set of practices companies should follow in order to provide their employees with autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Examples of these practices are: Let employees work on their own for 20% of their time; recognize their efforts not only through monetary rewards, but praises too; praising employees in private, and make these praises specific, etc.

I find the analysis interesting and agree with his points. Pink was very good at pinpointing the specific factors, and I feel a personal connection with each of those points. In fact, I use some of these techniques to try to motivate myself at times. Having said that, I also have some serious criticisms for this book. In particular, the first part of the book, which is supposed to motivate and given reason for why this book should interest the general public, is poorly presented in my humble opinion. In this first part, the author exhibited knowledge of the subject by providing provoking business examples and academic studies. He then tries to use draw conclusions referencing these stories. Unfortunately, at times I feel there’s such a big gap in his reasoning that I’m drawing conclusions that are opposite from what he wrote.

// start of rant, you can skip this part if you find this review too long… Personally though I think this is the most interesting part. 😀

The most serious pitfall in my opinion was the conclusion he drew from an experiment done by MIT professors. The experiment goes as follows: three groups are given different tasks, one group receiving the most monetary reward while another receiving the least amount. The result of this experiment is that if the task required even simple critical-thinking skills, the group that received the most monetary reward would give the worst performance. From this experiment, Pink draws the following conclusion: monetary reward will decrease an individual’s perform if the task requires thinking skills.

I disagree with his conclusion. There are very important factors this experiment does not capture. First of all, none of us working proper jobs today are rewarded monetarily the way the experiment was conducted. We do not go into work, perform a specific task, and get rewarded for how well we did on that task. Instead, companies hold yearly reviews to identify what each individual accomplished over the past year. There is a very important difference here. To me the above experiment concludes that people do not tend to perform well under pressure for tasks that are finished in a short period of time. When you are asking a person to perform one task, and tie the performance to a monetary reward, you are putting extra pressure on that person, and he/she would tend to get distracted by the implications of the reward, and ends up not performing well. However, if this reward is only given out based on one’s performance throughout a long period of time, it could be perceived that the designer would have enough time to digest the meaning of this monetary reward and would become motivated to perform on his/her tasks through the long period. Now this is only a conjecture, but in any case I do not believe Pink’s citation of this experiment contribute to his arguments whatsoever. If it did, then we should all start paying our employees the minimum amount of salary, so that they can contribute the most to their work. I dare any company to try this strategy.

The author then presents another story that (seemingly) deals with the long term implications of monetary reward. This study surveys a group of students who are dubbed “intrinsically” and “externally” motivated. Those that are externally motivated are more affected by external rewards, including money. After several years it was found that those that are intrinsically motivated have a much better career than those that are externally motivated. However this is a misleading example as well. This example proves intrinsically motivated people in generally do a lot better than those that are externally motivated, but it doesn’t prove how monetary rewards affect people’s performance. In fact, I would conjecture (again) that if you divide those that are intrinsically motivated into two groups, and give one group a much higher pay than the other, then the group that is higher paid will do better. In other words, I believe monetary reward will still be positively correlated with performance when our subjects are the same kind of performers. Moreover, Pink mentioned in his book that companies should “hire the best people and leave them alone”. One of the most important factors to hire these “intrinsically motivated” candidates is to provide them with a competitive compensation package, so that they would choose to be your employee instead of working for someone else, which again stresses the importance of compensation.

// end of rant

This book is not particularly about design, however as Pink pointed out, his techniques are most useful when the subject is trying to perform a creative task. Thus managers of design firms can definitely learn from this book, and any techniques applied to the firm would probably have a bigger impact on the productivity of their employees than that of companies that do not require creativity as much. For the designers, this book is also useful in helping them achieve their best potential by identifying their own interests and the techniques that are most effective to themselves.

As mentioned before, I can definitely relate to this factors and techniques that motivate me. I find myself most productive while I’m in a flow (coding for a long period of time), while I find there is purpose for what I’m doing, and while I’m not forced by others to perform certain tasks. There are two audiences for this book: individuals who seek to maximize their potential and find meaning of life; company executives who wish to maximize the utility of their employees. Employers can definition get some ideas associated with human resource management, while the average Joe can try to motivate himself by relating to some of the motivational factors in this book. Again even though the message is important and is something I agree with, unfortunately the stories in part one are so poorly chosen (IMHO) that I would recommend readers to skip the first part all together. In fact I would have thrown the book away after reading the first chapter if not for the sake of doing this book report.

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2. Jon Pittman - February 14, 2011

Good review, Jia. I like the fact that you took a critical stand. I personally believe that there is something to Pink’s argument about intrinsic motivation but he may oversimplify and overstate the case – one of the hazards of writing for the masses. He wrote Drive after looking at motivation of creative people and looking for an explanation of their performance.

What he says about financial reward is to pay enough that you take the issue of compensation off the table. Many good companies do just that.

Clearly there is a large and important debate these days about the adverse effects of compensation schemes – particularly those that drive counterproductive behavior

3. Anders Taucher - February 17, 2011

A little hint for those who are interested in the topic, but challenged for time. Dan Pink held a pretty good TED talk on the same subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

The talk mentions some of the same experiments that Jia mentions (I think – I only have the book in my bookshelf, I haven´t had time to read it yet), so you can see whether you agree with Jia´s rant 🙂


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