Drive: Self-Direction, Mastery & the Purpose Motive

[youtube][/youtube]Commenting on my blog “Much More and Much Less than a Boss” on Daily KOS, Alpha99 put up a link to a video on YouTube that they thought I would appreciate called “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”, done by Daniel Pink, who writes about business and human motivation, based on his book by the same name. I played it and was practically mesmerized by this visually captivating and provocative piece, done on a white board with markers and a rapid-fire voiceover by Pink. The issues it calls out are a perfect illustration of what I see as the transformative shift going on in our culture from the hierarchical control model to more of an egalitarian circle of equals.

At the beginning of the video piece, Pink’s voiceover sets things up as follows…

Our motivations are unbelievably interesting. The science is a little surprising. We are not as endlessly manipulable and predictable as you would think. There is a whole set of unbelievably interesting studies that call into question the idea that if you reward something you get more of the behavior you want and if you punish something you get less.

Overdoing it a bit with the adverbs perhaps, but his verbal enthusiasm is contagious. Pink is saying that current research (he cites two MIT studies and refers to a larger body of parallel findings) is challenging some of the assumptions of behavioral theory (carrots and sticks, the power of rewards and punishments to compel us to do better) that are at the heart of some of the key conventional wisdom of economics and management science.

You can watch the video to get an elegantly simple and visually engaging white-board presentation of these MIT studies on motivation. The first involved MIT students as the subjects and the follow-up people in rural India, and the objective was to see to what degree different levels of monetary reward would motivate people to accomplish various tasks, some mechanical and some cognitive. But he states the gist of the findings as…

As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they expected, the higher the pay the higher the performance. Once the task called out for rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.

I am a great believer in, “What’s good for the goose and gander is good for the goslings”, that is, applying the wisdom of what is true for adults to children and youth as well. So the wisdom that Pink is calling out regarding the “management” of adults seems to me consistent with what Alfie Kohn has found in his critique of the conventional approach to rewards and punishments (“Punished by Rewards”, etc) in the educational and parenting arenas. To the extent that the development of a young person, including any formal education they might have, involves learning a set of mechanical tasks (say even the “Three Rs”), then external motivators (good grades, gold stars, praise, etc) may be effective.

But beyond that, getting into the area of cognitive development (certainly a key stated goal of any 21st Century educational institution) then those same external motivators are probably not being effective. Consistent with that failure would be the problem highlighted by studies showing a majority of high school students bored with their educational process (see my piece “Engaging High School Youth in Their Own Education”).

So then using the conclusions of this research as his evidence, Pink states what I find to be a fascinating conclusion about the role of money in motivation…

Fact is money is a motivator, but in a slightly strange way. If you don’t pay enough, people won’t be motivated. … But the best use of money as a motivator is if you pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. You pay people enough so they are not thinking about the money but about the work.

I intuitively get this, but I have never been able to put it so succinctly and clearly. As Pink points out it smacks a bit of communism rather that capitalism, as in, “Each according to their abilities, each according to their needs”. From the perspective of my own life, give me what I need (a living wage) and I can relax and give you the best of what I have to give. Because I’ve been blessed with being able to develop skills that pay well in the workforce (taking money off the table) I have been able to focus on quality of life, balance, and more intrinsic motivators.

So in Pink’s progressive, humanistic approach to designing the workplace, if you can take money off the table…

There are three factors that science has found lead to better performance and personal satisfaction – autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Pink is saying that years of social science research confirm that once your basic needs are met people naturally strive for the autonomy to direct their own lives in the direction of achieving mastery of things that are of interest to them, towards the goals of having and fulfilling broader individual and/or community purposes.

He makes a profound critique of the business concept of “management” which he sees as the opposite of autonomy and engagement, the more natural human state that brings out the best of higher cognitive skills…

Autonomy is the desire to be self-directed, to direct our own lives. But traditional definitions of management run afoul of this. Management is great if you want compliance, but if you want engagement, which is what we want in the workforce today as people are doing more complicated, more sophisticated things, self-direction is better.

Again, I am tempted to broaden the reach of this to challenge our conventional notions of how our youth should be educated. The administrators and teachers seem to be focused on managing the educational process rather than seeking student engagement in their own learning process, which according to the research, fully leverages the higher cognitive processes, the development of which is one of the key stated goals of our education system.

The conventional practice of management, as he sees it used in business (and I am extrapolating to schools as well), relies on an underlying assumption that people are innately lazy and inert, and need to be pushed to make something of themselves. Instead, Pink acknowledges the natural human “urge to get better at stuff… because it’s fun and if you get better at it it’s satisfying.

Finally in this video, Pink cites examples that he says illustrate the creative power of these natural urges toward autonomy and mastery, particularly when combined with a higher purpose. He calls out the examples of the development of the Linux operating system (which now runs one quarter of the servers in Fortune 500 companies), Apache web server software (key to the development of the World Wide Web), and Wikipedia (the free open-source encyclopedia).

As Pink frames it in his voiceover on the video…

You gat a bunch of people from around the world who do highly skilled work, but they’re willing to do it for free and volunteer their time maybe 20 or 30 hours a week. But then what they create they give it away rather than sell it.

Pink identifies “the purpose motive” as a profound challenge to the conventional wisdom of economics about the dominance of the profit motive, and a key element to business (and human) success going forward…

When the profit motive becomes unmoored from the purpose motive bad things happen, bad things ethically sometimes. But also bad things like crappy products, lame services and uninspiring places to work. When the profit motive is paramount or becomes completely unhitched from the purpose motive people don’t do great things… And that heralds something interesting. I think the companies that are flourishing, whether they’re profit, not for profit or something in between are animated by this purpose motive.

His final words summing up his video piece…

The big take-away here is if we start treating people like people and not assuming that they are simply horses… slower, smarter, better smelling horses. If we get past this kind of ideology and look at the science, I think we can actually build organizations and a work life that make us better off, but I also think they have the promise to make our world a little bit better.

Amen to that and so be it!

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