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In the Pink on Monkeys, Raisins, Money -- and the Flow

Monday, June 8th, 2015
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What’s going on here … little furry primates, sweet rewards: is this magazine about business -- or zoos?

 Enter American Daniel Pink. He is, well, in the pink!

Enter American Daniel Pink. He is, well, in the pink! Dan started his dive into the midst of that color when he received a JD from Yale Law School. Then he held some government posts, such as chief speechwriter between 1995 to 1997 for Vice President Al Gore.

As a refreshingly idealistic author, he has penned five bestselling books about the changing world of work. These include “A Whole New Mind,” translated into 24 languages, and “To Sell is Human.” In “Drive,” Pink explains how money is not always the best bait for the employee fish, the theme of this interview.

Overall, Dan shifts us toward a -- surprising -- new world view based on his grasp of the psychology of control versus self - directed cooperation. He has the courage to slap at GE's snarling former CEO Jack Welch.

In 2013, www.Thinkers 50 selected him one of the world’s top 15 business cogitaters. He is also host and co-executive producer of “Crowd Control,” a new television series about human behavior on the National Geographic Channel


Dan gives this exclusive interview to Victor Fic Biztech’s special correspondent for politics and economics, who edited it for clarity.


“ … those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.”
American historian Stephen Pressfield.


“We will stop beating you when morale improves.”
(Canadian journalist Victor Fic).


** Dan, do you consider yourself an iconoclast?

No. I try to discover interesting things perhaps useful to people. Sometimes that involves undoing the conventional wisdom and appearing iconoclastic. But that’s not my intent. I just try to follow my curiosity and discover the truth.

** The context of “Drive” goes beyond merely noting the stress on creativity, correct?

I have already reported on the ways that people are shifting to less routine, less algorithmic work to more conceptual and creative labor. In response, readers asked me “How to motivate people to do that?” I didn’t know. But I realized that there was a huge body of research. Ultimately, I was surprised by its scope and how deeply it challenged the conventional wisdom.


** Your deep research took you as far back as 50 years ago, to monkeys, to sugary treats ….

One of the first people to research intrinsic rewards was Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin in 1949. He wanted monkeys to do a complex puzzle for a reward of raisins. But Harlow realized that monkeys started to do the puzzle themselves without the pay off -- on their own interest. Of course, humans are also primates. So Harlow wondered whether we have intrinsic motivations along with biological drives and a reward - and - punishment drive.

** Now Dan, here you enter the realm of the psychology of control … and how people buck it. Please explain.

There’s a certain kind of reward in organizations. Pyschologists call it “controlling contingent.” I call it “if -then.” Fifty years of behavioral science tells us that “if - then” versions are effective for simple, mechanical, algorithmic tasks. But the same research shows they’re far less effective for more complex, creative ones. The problem isn’t money per se. It is the if - then part. Contingency is a form of control. And human beings have only two responses. They comply -- or they defy. But for the complex work most people are doing these days, we don’t want compliant or defiant people but engaged ones.

** Pink, hang on! You stressed the nuanced point that these “if - then” rewards are effective for certain lower order jobs … .

Human beings love rewards. They get our attention in a very focused, narrow way. That’s great when you’re following set instructions -- turning the same screw repeatedly on an assembly line, processing paper in a white collar office or talking off a script in a call center.


** Why do you warn that these ‘if - then” rewards hamper creative work?

For the same reason they’re generally effective for algorithmic tasks. If - then rewards narrow our focus. But for creative work, that is a disadvantage. Instead, you need an expansive view.

** Can you cite examples of creative or non - algorithmic work?

Coming up with a new product or a new piece of software. Designing a logo. Teaching a class where you must figure out how to reach the confused kid. A narrow, short-term focus doesn’t help.

** So what is the formula that you recommend?

Instead of larding people up with if - then rewards, first, pay people enough. Money matters a lot. But it’s mostly a threshold motivator. You must pay people fairly. If you don’t, people lack motivation. In some ways, the best use of money for that is to pay people enough to take the issue off the table. Afterward, there are three key motivators for enduring performance: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

** How is this triple equation more powerful?

Autonomy is having some control over what you do, how you do it, when and with whom. Mastery is the chance to improve at something that matters, to progress in meaningful work. Purpose is knowing your motive, not merely method. Good pay plus autonomy, mastery, and purpose are far more effective than endless carrots and sticks.

** What is flow, Dan?

That’s a concept from American Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. It describes moments when the challenge is exquisitely matched to our abilities. It is not too easy or hard. You lose sense of yourself and time in the work.

** Many athletes experience that!

Sure. It can happen when we’re running, when we’re reading, when we’re in the midst of a project.

** Your extensive research summarizes 15 top books that reinforce or nuance that idea. That assists extremely busy leaders. Describe some of the stand outs.
The best depends on a person’s circumstances. But Csikszentmihalyi’s "Flow” is a must - read. So is “The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield. He addresses the idea of mastery – how much it depends on showing up and doing the work, overcoming resistance. Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” is a classic. He argues that effective leaders have a huge sense of purpose plus a deep reservoir of humility.

** Hmm, but Jack Welch at GE was nicknamed “neutron Jack” and scared people into performance. He fired the bottom 10% of the workforce yearly … .

Jack Welch has not been a CEO for a long time.

** You also explain no less than 13 ways to motivate yourself -- some are unorthodox. Explain the FedEx Day.

This is from an Australian company called Atlassian. Once a quarter, they take 24 hours and let employees work on anything they want – so long as it’s not part of their regular job. This one day of intense, undiluted autonomy has led to a whole array of ideas for new products, improvements to existing projects, better processes that had otherwise not emerged.

** Also, most would lionize President John F. Kennedy as a shining leader. Yet you offer an anecdote about how Senator Clare Booth Luce knocked him.

Luce told Kennedy that “a great man is a sentence.” Anybody who’s ever achieved anything wasn’t trying to do seventeen different things, but one or two big, transcendent goals. Lets all think about ours. What single sentence summarizes you?

** Managers will resist you. Really, why do you advise them to give up control when it seems central to leadership?

I mean that you must involve people in goal setting. Often, people are told what the goals are. But if they first contribute to setting them, they reach them better.

** And you insist that starts with careful words?

Yes, it means the leader using non – controlling language. Americans Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two legendary motivation researchers, advise that we switch from words like “must” and instead use words like “consider” or “try this.” And the best advice I can summarize in four words: talk less, listen more.

** Dan, maybe some will deem you esoteric, theoretical. How -- specifically – can managers promote that joyful flow and intrinsic motivation that you extoll for creative work?

Again, it comes back to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. So try a FedEx Day or carve out a little time for people to work on business-related projects of their own invention. On mastery, don't rely only on annual performance reviews. Hold weekly one-on-ones to give people more regular feedback. And on purpose, this week try having two fewer conversations with employees about how to do their work and two more about why they're doing it to start with.

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