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2.0 out of 5 starsBiased and selective presentation of important ideas, January 24, 2010
Walter H. Bock

This review is from: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Hardcover)
Before plunking down your credit card for a copy of Drive, by Dan Pink, consider making do with just his TED talk. The talk contains the substance of this book without the excess padding.

The book has about 250 pages. One hundred fifty or so of those are for the basic content. It includes the Introduction and Parts I and II (chapters one through six).

The other hundred pages are a "Toolkit." This includes some material that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else, a glossary, a recap of Drive, twenty conversation starters (useful at cocktail parties), a reading list, and a fitness plan. That’s forty percent of the book. And none of it helps you put what you’ve read to work.

The core points of the book are covered in the TED talk. You can listen to it in about fifteen minutes or read it in about ten. You won’t get the fitness plan or the conversation starters. You will get the essence of Pink’s message.

If you’re a boss or concerned about leadership, you need to become familiar with that message. The ideas are important. Pink’s rendering of them, for good or ill, will define and influence the discussion of motivation in business for quite a while.

He does get the big picture right. He says that people would prefer activities where they can pursue three things.

Autonomy: People want to have control over their work.

Mastery: People want to get better at what they do.

Purpose: People want to be part of something that is bigger than they are.

This matches research that I’ve done with class members for over twenty-five years. They discuss a time when "it was great to come to work" and then create a description of what those times are like. The descriptions vary slightly in wording but always include the following.

Interesting and meaningful work.
Clear and reasonable expectations.
Frequent and usable feedback.
Maximum control possible over work life.

I’m describing the kinds of workplaces where intrinsic motivation happens. Pink is describing three things that provide that kind of motivation. In most highly effective workplaces, it’s the boss that is the most important force creating an environment when intrinsic motivation can happen.

Top management sets the basic compensation and benefits structure. If that isn’t perceived as fair and consistent, natural intrinsic motivation won’t kick in.

It’s your individual supervisor who has the biggest effect on your daily working environment. That’s why there are pockets of excellence in otherwise horrid companies and why even the best companies have workers who are unhappy and teams that are unproductive.

This book won’t give you the connection from concept to workplace. But Pink does deliver many key ideas that matter.

Key Idea: There is a difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Key Idea: Intrinsic motivators are more powerful.

Key Idea: If you use monetary rewards to get people to perform the way you want, those rewards may have the opposite effect.

These are important things for a boss to know, but if you only have Drive to guide you, you will get some things very wrong.

The examples that are used are heavily weighted toward academic and consulting studies. It’s not apparent that Pink talked to a single worker or frontline supervisor. The book would have been more helpful if he had.

There are some pre-requisites to having intrinsic motivation kick in. Pink mentions in passing that there needs to be fair compensation in place. That’s true, but it’s not an "oh-by-the-way" point. It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy in work clothes.

Throughout the book, Pink equates "monetary" incentives with "extrinsic motivation." That ignores praise, promotion, preferment (in scheduling, eg), the admiration of peers, time off, and a host of other positive incentives. It also skews the discussion toward academic studies and away from the real workplace.

Pink also presents the issue as if it were intrinsic motivators (good) versus extrinsic motivators (not good). In the TED talk he even says "This is the titanic battle between these two approaches."

That’s not how things work in the real world. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivators and their effects interact. You don’t have a simple choice of which lever to pull. You have to understand and influence a complex system.

Those shortcomings are important. They derive from one of the most important things to understand if you’ve going to study this material critically and turn it to good use.

Pink has written this book like a political speech. He writes to make a point, not to present a balanced argument.

Like a good speech writer, Pink uses language that implies value judgments. He uses terms like "humanistic psychology" for things he agrees with. When he doesn’t agree he uses terms like "rat-like seeking."

Like a good speech writer, Pink makes sweeping statements without providing support for them. "Sometimes" and "a surprisingly large proportion of the time" are used with no indication of what they actually mean. He says that sales quotas "can be effective," but doesn’t tell you when or how often.

Like a good speech writer, Pink leaves out things that don’t support his simplified message. There’s no mention of studies that support the use of rewards in business settings.

Like a good speech writer, Pink boils his facts down to only the ones that support his argument. If all you read was Drive, you would think that the work of Deci and Ryan is about the superiority of intrinsic motivators to extrinsic in all situations.

But their work is more complex than Pink describes it. It includes analysis of effective extrinsic motivators as well as extrinsic motivators that are counter-productive.

Like a good speech writer, pink, picks up studies from one sphere and applies them elsewhere without telling you what he’s doing. Deci and Ryan have done admirable and important work, but it’s on motivation in personal development, not in the workplace.

Like a good speech writer, Pink ignores contradictions. He describes a horrid, slave ship workplace ruled by carrots and sticks. Later he mentions that most "flow" experiences happen at work.

Pink tells us about "20 percent" time for creativity at Google and Atlassian. But he doesn’t discuss why they only offer their intrinsic reward of creativity to engineers and not the other workers in the company.

Like a good speech writer, Pink sets up the straw man of "Motivation 2.0" so that he’s easy to knock down. And, inconvenient truths are sometimes mentioned in passing and then never heard from again.

The Bottom Line

You should learn what’s in this book because, for better or worse, it is influencing the conversation about what makes a great workplace. But because of the presentation and selective use of facts, you can’t rely on this book alone to help you do a better job as a boss.

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