The Puzzle of Motivation

March 24, 2017.
Improve Your Presentations.
Study the best TED Speakers!

Dan Pink:
The Puzzle of Motivation
(Among Top 10 Most Watched TED Talks)

Dan Pink is the best selling author of five books, which have sold over two million copies worldwide and been translated into 35 languages.  Before that, in 1991, he got a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School and from 1995-97 was chief speech writer for then U.S. Vice President, Al Gore.

In 2007 he was a Japan Society Media Fellow in Tokyo studying Japan’s comic book industry. Pink’s fourth book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, was published in 2009, the same year as this featured TED Talk, which is on the same theme.

TEDGlobal  2009      17.2M views on

Pink opens his talk with a humorous story about going to Yale Law School but never actually practicing law, and this leads neatly into his main theme of using his legal skills to make a ‘case’ about rethinking how businesses motivate people.  This opening is very effective not only in grabbing the attention of the audience, but also in getting them on his side and in a positive frame of mind towards what he has to say.

The theme of Pink’s talk is that the methods used by most companies to motivate their staff are out of date and of limited effectiveness in getting results.  Pink starts by referring to the Candle Problem experiment, created in the 1930s by German psychologist Karl Duncker, where people are given a candle, book of matches and box of thumb-tacks and asked to attach the candle to the wall.

The solution is not what most people initially expect, it takes some lateral thinking to work out.  This experiment was used by Duncker to illustrate what he called Functional Fixedness, where the people in the test have to adjust their perception of the functions of the objects they are given—Pink gives the solution in his talk.  Many companies suffer from this same Functional Fixedness when it comes to what are effective motivators these days.

Pink follows this up by referring to experiments carried out over the last 40 years by several highly respected scientists, economists and psychologists showing that often money incentives are not an effective way to motivate people.

For tasks that are mechanical, financial rewards can work because they narrow people’s focus on the repetitive mechanical task in hand, but when a task calls for more complex thinking, the larger the financial reward the poorer the performance.  Yet businesses continue to use financial incentives because that is how things have been done for many years—there is a mismatch between what science knows and what businesses keep on doing.

Pink proposes a new approach to motivation, based on three key intrinsic factors:

Autonomy. people have an urge to direct their own lives – some companies, like Google and Atlassian in Australia, let their employees use some of their company time to work on whatever projects they like, which has resulted in the creation of new products for the companies.

Mastery. people have a desire to get better at something that matters to them.

Purpose. people have a yearning to do something for the benefit of something larger than themselves.

Are these ideas utopian?  Not if the many scientific experiments Pink mentions are right, and he gives a further example of how new, intrinsic incentives can work.  In the 1990s Microsoft developed an encyclopedia, Encarta, and its development was supported through traditional extrinsic incentives.  In 2001 Wikipedia started up, based on the intrinsic incentives that Pink has highlighted, where people contribute for free because they like doing it, or because they have an interest in a particular topic and want to share their interest with others.  Microsoft discontinued Encarta in 2009, whilst Wikipedia is still growing.

Pink ends with a call to action: in order to thrive in the 21st century, businesses need to repair this incentive mismatch and get beyond the traditional carrot and stick motivation, by encouraging intrinsic self-driven creativity and giving people a purpose in doing things.

To access more TED videos:

This article first appeared in the EMC Quest newsletter series.

Leave a Reply