More Than a Paycheck

Workers are more efficient, loyal and creative when they feel a sense of purpose—when work has meaning.

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Daniel Pink is one of the more energetic members of the growing tribe of business writers-speakers-bloggers who, like the ubiquitous Malcolm Gladwell, plunder the work of economists, scientists and psychologists to attack well-established business assumptions. Mr. Pink is known for public presentations in which he delivers a consistently upbeat message: that the miserable age of 20th-century management is over, that the tyranny of organizational charts and spreadsheets is behind us, and that we are now entering more sun-splashed climes, where creativity flourishes and businesses treat employees as human beings, not machine parts.

It is a message we would all love to believe. With "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us," Mr. Pink tries to jolly us all along toward accepting it. He sets up the following history. First came Motivation 1.0, during which we were stirred by nothing but our urges—grunting, hunting and procreating in caves. Next came Motivation 2.0, during which we made calculations based on reward or punishment. Economic development depended on manipulating our desires and fears to extract performance. Carrots and sticks were the tools of this motivational operating system.

And now we are reaching Motivation 3.0, a higher plane where people write Wikipedia entries for the fun of it, go on "vocation vacations" to try out professions different from their own, and spend a lot of time thinking about the purpose of their work. Science, Mr. Pink says, has shown that we are motivated as much intrinsically, by the sheer joy and purpose of certain activities, as extrinsically, by rewards like pay raises and promotions.

The science that Mr. Pink is referring to rests largely on the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at Claremont Graduate University. These three researchers have found that we do our best work when motivated from within, when we have control over our time and decisions and when we feel a deep sense of purpose. Under such conditions, we can achieve real mastery over whatever it is that we do.

The modern workplace, Mr. Pink laments, is too often set up to deny us this opportunity. Firms that hope to optimize efficiency by making their employees clock in and out, attend compulsory meetings, and receive pay for performance are de-motivating through excessive control. What they should be doing, he argues, is giving workers the chance to do their best work by granting them more autonomy and helping them to achieve the mastery that may come with it.

Mr. Pink cites an Australian software firm, Atlassian, that allows its programmers 20% of their time to work on any software problem they like, provided it is not part of their regular job. The programmers turn out to be much more efficient with that 20% of their time than they are with their regular work hours. Atlassian credits the 20% with many of its innovations and its high staff retention. Companies as large as Google and 3M have similar programs that have produced everything from Google News to the Post-It note.


By Daniel H. Pink
Riverhead, 242 pages, $26.95

Relatedly, Best Buy has implemented a "results oriented work environment" at its corporate headquarters in Richfield, Minn., to improve morale and lower turnover. This means that salaried employees put in as much time as it takes to do their jobs, on their own schedule. If they need to duck out to take a child to the doctor, they don't have to ask. It is assumed that they will do their work in their own time. The hope is that, in such an environment, workers will feel more inclined to contribute to the company's well-being than they would if they were simply grinding out hours for a paycheck.

And then there are "low-profit limited liability corporations," for-profit businesses whose main goal is offering social benefits—for instance, buying old furniture factories, making them environmentally friendly, and then leasing them back cheaply to hard-up furniture makers.

From these and other scattered data points, Mr. Pink rustles up his trend. Is it plausible? It is easy to find fault with some of his claims. Mr. Pink cites research showing that artists do better work for themselves than on commission. So much for the Sistine Chapel. He writes in favor of companies that allow employees more say in their firms' charitable giving. But why don't these firms drop the paternalism altogether and simply give the money to their employees as pay, trusting them to do their best with it? And one has to wonder whether Mr. Pink's flexible, meaningful-work model is widely applicable or something that only selected companies will be able to adopt.

What is more, the truths that Mr. Pink cites are not nearly as "surprising" as he claims. They are to be found in centuries of philosophy, in the Pre-Socratics, in Plato, in "Walden." Yes, indeed: Beyond serving our basic needs, money doesn't buy happiness. We need a greater purpose in our lives. Our most precious resource is time. We respond badly to conditions of servitude, whether the lash of the galley master or the more subtle enslavement of monthly paychecks, quarterly performance targets and the fear of losing health insurance. Work that allows us to feel in control of our lives is better than work that does not. Nonetheless, these lessons are worth repeating, and if more companies feel emboldened to follow Mr. Pink's advice, then so much the better.

Mr. Delves Broughton is the author of "Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School" (Penguin).

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