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Dawn Bailey


Are Organizations Working Against Greater Human Nature?

Daniel Pink offers insights at Quest for Excellence

Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2016 - 16:21

Daniel Pink, author of five books about changing the world of work, recently offered attendees at the 28th Annual Quest for Excellence Conference insights on what science tells us about what motivates people on the job, and an alternate approach to the way most organizations view motivation.

“There’s a rich trove of research about what motivates people to do great things, what motivates people to do breakthrough kinds of work,” he said. “I think what you’ll find are some synergies between this different, alternate approach to motivation and many things that the Baldrige Program figured out a couple of decades ago.”

Pink said most people have an assumption about motivation: that rewarding behavior will get more of that behavior and punishing behavior will get less. However, science has shown that this is the result as long as the task uses mechanical skills, is simple and short term, and follows an algorithm or recipe.

“Once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance,” said Pink. “That conclusion is at odds with our instincts. Short-term rewards are often like a caffeine or sugar rush. For tasks that are more complex, you want an expansive review and a longer time horizon, something more nutritious than simply a caffeine boost.”

Added Pink, any social scientist will tell you that short-term thinking about rewards has made its way fully into organizations; W. Edwards Deming warned about this 40 years ago.

“If-then rewards, because they are controlling, are inherently wrong in a moral sense because you’re trying to control another human being,” said Pink. As long as you are paying people fairly, he said, then there are “three core motivators for enduring performance on more complex, creative paths: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”


The word “management” is a technology of the 1840s, said Pink, “just something that some guy invented, a technology to organize people into productive capacities.” It was an investment in compliance: “what you wanted people to do, the way you wanted it done,” he said, but today we also need engagement.

“Human beings don’t engage by being managed, and they don’t engage by being controlled,” said Pink. “It needs to be under their own steam. You can’t manage people into engagement. The technology for engagement is self-direction.”

Pink cited a Gallup study that seven of 10 U.S. workers aren’t engaged in their jobs. “But you look at some of these Baldrige companies... the engagement scores are the exact reverse of this,” he noted. “What we should be doing is managing where we want that compliance, but looking for ways to foster greater autonomy over what people actually do.”

Pink challenged the audience to think about places where employees can be given greater autonomy over their work—how they use their time, when they do the work, what techniques they employ, etc.

“When people have some measure of autonomy over these aspects of their work, they tend to be more engaged, they tend to do a little better,” he said. “Even checklists require a degree of self-direction in fashioning the checklist and in behaving within it.”

He offered examples of companies that give employees some sovereignty over their time. For example, some companies give people days or specific hours to work on their own projects in “intense, undiluted autonomy” that has led to new ideas and improvements that would otherwise have not occurred.


Pink defined “mastery” as “people’s desire to get better at stuff” and said the single, biggest motivator in organizations is meaningful work. “The days when people were making progress were the days they felt motivated... felt loyalty to the organization... wanted to come back and give it their all,” he said.

“The trouble we have in organizations is that the architecture of organizations doesn’t promote progress,” he said. “The only way you know whether you are making progress is if you’re getting information on how you’re doing.” Pink cited the typical management practice of annual review cycles and also suggested a real difference in the way millennials (i.e., people born during the early 1980s to about 2000) view motivation. “Imagine a millennial who has had the Internet, cell phones, consoles, etc. her whole life... who’s had rich, regular, robust, meaningful feedback all of the time,” Pink challenged. “Then we stick her in an organization, and we say, ‘In this alternative universe, we give you feedback once a year in awkward kabuki theater-style conversation.’”

Pink asked how can we take our feedback mechanisms and upgrade them so they’re more like the feedback mechanisms available in the outside world (e.g., instant Internet searches).

One suggestion was weekly one-on-one check-ins, rather than yearly meetings. On certain weeks, a supervisor might ask, “What are you working on? What do you need?” But then the remaining weeks might be dedicated to a particular topic, such as, “What do you love/loathe about your job?” “What barriers do you have to do your job effectively?” or “Where do you see your career long term?”

Adding to this, Pink commended the 2015 Baldrige Award recipients, as well as the Baldrige community, who commit to being learning organizations. “To have a learning culture so people learn and grow on the job, that’s a powerful thing to keep talented people... because talented people want to make progress,” he said.


Pink presented two case studies. One focused on fund-raising call-center staff that earned double the money of other staff when they were given a letter from a person to whom the money would be given. In another example, when cooks could see the people for whom they were making the food, the quality of the food improved.

“While existing theories suggest that increased contact with customers and employees diminishes efficiency, revealing customers to employees can lead to them feeling more appreciated, enhancing their job satisfaction and willingness to exert effort,” said Pink.

Pink clarified what he called “Purpose” with a capital P and “purpose” with a small p. Purpose with a capital P is about making a difference, doing something big and transcendent. Pink cited Baldrige schools, hospitals, and nonprofits that are literally changing peoples’ lives. But not every organization can do that every single day, he noted; sometimes it’s about employees feeling that they are making a contribution, making someone’s day better, doing things that matter to other people.

“Make a difference or make a contribution,” he said. “Both are really, really important.”

Pink challenged the audience to have more “why” conversations when they lead, coach, and instruct others. “We need to show people how to do things, but a lot of times we short-shrift the why” he said. “Why are we doing this in the first place? Why does it even matter? How does my piece contribute to it?  There’s a lot of solid evidence showing that’s a powerful performance enhancer.”

Using the core motivators of autonomy, mastery, and purpose, rather than just carrot-stick approaches, is aligned with human nature, said Pink. “I think a lot of times, organizations, in the name of efficiency, do things that go against greater human nature,” he said. “The way to do things better is to go with the grain of human nature. We’ll have better places to work, and a better world to live in.”

First published May 10, 2016, on the Blogrige.


About The Author

Dawn Bailey’s picture

Dawn Bailey

Dawn Bailey is a writer/editor for the Baldrige Program involved in all aspects of communications, from leading the Baldrige Executive Fellows program to managing the direction of case studies, social media efforts, and assessment teams. She has more than 25 years of experience (18 years at the Baldrige Program) working on publications and education teams. Her background is in English and journalism, with degrees from the University of Connecticut and an advanced degree from George Mason University.


Thank you, Dawn Marie Bailey:

"Added Pink, any social scientist will tell you that short-term thinking about rewards has made its way fully into organizations; Edward Deming warned about this 40 years ago."

And so he, W. Edwards Deming, did.

Proper name

Thanks for your comment, Ed. We have edited this article to reference Deming's full and correct name.