Drive: What Motivates Us?

Let’s say you’re the head of a U.S. automaker. Your last quarter was very strong, but once again your company sheepishly claims the second-most-popular spot in world of auto sales.

Though all market indicators are on your side to crown you the new number one automaker – your technology is top-notch, your employees are uber-creative and productive, driving trends are in your favor – you just can’t seem to break through an illusive glass showroom ceiling that keeps stitching on your vehicles’ leather steering columns a big scarlet R: runner-up.

Is there anything you can do maneuver into first place? What about shifting your productivity gear into overdrive?  How about a cash incentive to inspire your employees to create a break-through in auto innovation: the next must-have car?

That’ll work. Everyone responds to a reward, especially a monetary one. It’s the textbook gold-standard in employee motivation. You’ll soon out prius the Prius.

But not so fast. If Daniel H. Pink were advising you he’d likely say – think again.

Pink’s popular book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” currently number 23 on the paperback nonfiction New York Times Best Sellers List, cautions that the truths we’ve long held about extrinsic rewards, especially in the workplace, are not so valid anymore.

In fact, Pink says “rewards can form a weird sort of behavioral alchemy: They can transform an interesting task into a drudge. They can turn play into work. And by diminishing intrinsic motivation, they can send performance, creativity and even upstanding behavior toppling like dominoes.”

Pink, author of 2006’s New York Times best-seller “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future,” is quickly becoming a go-to literary guru in attempting to understand ourselves and our behaviors in a contemporary world, including the workplace. His writing is crisp, breezy and absorbing.

“Drive” outlines the transition of human nature from basic survival, through a period of “seek reward, avoid punishment,” to where we are today, in a period dominated by what Pink defines as three new basic elements: autonomy, creativity and purpose. Though money was more of a people motivator in the manufacturing 20th century, in today’s global information environment, ingenuity trumps routine.

Through well-documented and widely reported psychological surveys and testings, like the Soma puzzle and solving the “candle problem” – securing a candle to a wall using only matches and a box of tacks – Pink shows us how our “algorithmic” and “heuristic” activities have evolved.

An algorithmic task, like bagging groceries at the supermarket, is when you follow a set of established rules to a single conclusion. “A heuristic task is the opposite,” says Pink. “Precisely because no algorithm exists for it, you have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution. Creating an ad campaign is mostly heuristic. You have to come up with something new.”

“Drive”  proves that for many people (most of us), the joy in life and at work is found in the intrinsic. Drudgery is out. Engagement is in.

There’s a good slogan for the next Prius. In scarlet red please.

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