Special Report: America's CU Conference

Pink: Embrace Three Principles of Motivation

Best-selling author says most companies practice terribly outdated methods of staff motivation.

June 21, 2011

“The past few decades of behavioral research have taught us a great deal about what motivates people,” best-selling author Dan Pink told America’s Credit Union Conference attendees Monday. “The problem is, most organizations have ignored the research and continue to practice terribly outdated methods of employee motivation.”

Most organizations continue to use “if/then” motivators to try to increase employee and organizational performance—“if” employees perform at superior levels, “then” employers will reward them.

“If/then motivators were popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, and they work well for simple, routine, mechanical tasks,” said Pink. “But recent research has shown us if/then motivators do not work well with complex problems that require innovation and creativity. And most 21st Century workplaces are full of complex problems that require innovative solutions.”

Pink says 21st century organizations must move beyond if/then motivators and start practicing these three principles of motivation:

1. Autonomy. “When asked to describe the best boss you ever had, most people don’t describe someone who constantly micromanaged them and looked over their shoulder on every project,” said Pink.

Employers should give employees more autonomy and let them come up with their own creative solutions.

Companies that excel at this, Pink says, are Zappos, Facebook, Atlassian, Intuit, and Google. These companies intentionally designate 10% to 20% of their employees’ workweek as unstructured time—when they’re free to work on any project they’d like that aligns with the company’s goals.

At Google, for example, employees used this unstructured time to create products such as g-mail and g-news.

2. Mastery. “People love to get better at things,” said Pink. “And motivational studies have shown that people at work say they’re most motivated when they’re making progress on assignments or projects.

But employees won’t know whether they’re making progress at work if they don’t have regular feedback, he continued. “The annual performance appraisal doesn’t work because it’s annual. Employees need constant feedback on their progress toward mastering projects or tasks.”

3. Purpose. Instead of telling employees how to do things, tell them why they’re doing them. “Organizations need to embrace the purpose motive, not merely the profit motive.”