By Daniel H. Pink. 2009. New York: Riverhead Books. 215 pages.

Reviewed by Diane Byington, Ph.D.

Daniel Pink, following up on his bestseller A Whole New Mind, picks up on another social trend that is growing in importance – a new way of motivating people. Here is his “cocktail party summary” of the book:
“When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system – which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators – doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements: (1) Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives; (2) Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and (3) Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

The first operating system for motivating people at work is survival. Early on, and in some circumstances still, if people don’t work, they don’t eat. That’s quite a motivator. But, for most of us (at least those of us who still have jobs), survival motivation only goes so far.

Next came the “carrot and stick” operating system, which we are probably all familiar with: we might get a bonus if we do particularly good work, or we might get laid off if we don’t. Pink declares that this operating system only works for rote work, and these days most of the jobs in the U.S. involve very little rote.

In recent years, science has become aware of another operating system that is much more effective, at least in most circumstances, than the other two: the intrinsic motivator of the work itself. People will work the hardest, and produce the most, when the work involves these elements: they have a good deal of autonomy in how the work is structured, the work is challenging enough that they have a desire to achieve mastery, and the work serves some purpose other than making widgets. Oh, yes, the person may be making widgets, but he or she will have some autonomy in how they’re made, will have pride of workmanship, and will be proud of the function of the widgets in society.

Bosses in this new operating system must relinquish much of the control they were used to in the “carrot and stick” operating system. Pink lists several ways to begin letting go – for your own benefit and your team’s:

  • Involve people in goal-setting. Research shows that individuals are far more engaged when they’re pursuing goals they had a hand in creating.
  • Use noncontrolling language. The next time you’re about to say “must” or “should,” try saying “think about” or “consider” instead. A small change in wording can help promote engagement over compliance and might even reduce some people’s urge to defy.
  • Hold office hours. Take a cue from college professors and set aside an hour or two a week when any employee can come in and talk to you about anything they want. Your colleagues might benefit and you might learn something.

Pretty obvious stuff for most people. The whole book is like this – interesting reading, but not much new, if you’ve been keeping up with organizational theory or research at all. It’s always good to be reminded, though, because we all tend to fall back into old patterns of “carrot and stick.”

The book has 146 pages of content, and includes another 70 or so pages of a “Type I Toolkit”. Type I is his way of describing the manager who relies more on intrinsic motivation. Type X (for extrinsic motivation) is the old style manager he wants to replace. The toolkit includes a reading list, tips for parents and educators in using these new techniques with kids, and a list of ways to improve in business. I didn’t find the toolkit all that useful. Finally, he includes a website where you can take a survey to find out whether you are a “Type I” or “Type X” manager. I took the test, which was about 30 questions, and received feedback that went something like this: “Most of your answers fit in the Type X category.” That’s it? I felt like I deserved something more after taking the time to answer so many questions.

In my mind, the book was interesting but probably would have been better as an article. It’s a bit light on content. If you’re looking to read a book by Daniel Pink, my suggestion would be to pick up A Whole New Mind. It’s a better book.

— Diane Byington is a writer and coach who consults with The Booth Company.