What motivates us to take on life's challenges? Is it the lure of money, fame, power? Or is it something else?
In his new book, bestselling author Daniel Pink challenges traditional concepts of what drives us to act -- and shares some surprising scientific explanations for why we do what we do.
The science behind motivation
Pink says there's a big gap between what science knows and what business leaders know about how to motivate a workforce.
Pink says most businesses operate today on the carrot-and-stick system of rewards and punishments. Employees are rewarded for good performance, and penalized for performing badly.
According to Pink, the carrot-and-stick approach usually works well in situations where workers are performing simple, routine tasks, like checking products on an assembly line or packing boxes. But for jobs that require creativity, and deeper, more complex thinking, such as writing or designing, employers need to take a different approach.
What really motivates us?
People in more creative jobs are not as motivated by external factors like cash rewards, according to Pink. They do their job because they like it.
"They like the challenge of it, they like the mastery of it, they like the engagement that it brings, they like the creativity that it requires," says Pink.
He calls these intrinsic or internal motivators. An intrinsic motivator says Pink, is doing something for the sake of the activity itself. "So you play the banjo because you like to play the banjo," he says.
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Extrinsic motivator on the other hand, is doing something in order to get a reward. A person might work really hard at their job if they know the person with the most sales will get a $100 gift card.
Pink says intrinsic motivators can be broken down into three components: The first is autonomy; "that is, self-direction." The second is mastery, "our desire to become better at something that matters," and finally, purpose, "to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves."
"Those are really the pathway to high performance on a whole range of things," says Pink, "especially on the more creative, conceptual, complex things that more and more people in this country, in the United States, in Western Europe, in Canada, in Australia, in Japan in much of the industrialized world are doing."
Pink goes on to explain the importance of autonomy in situations where people are in restricted environments:
"The history of humans of all kinds of societies -- western, eastern, modern, ancient -- is that human beings typically resist control," he says.
"So you have people in Iran who are protesting that government even though it puts them in harm's way, because they don't want to be controlled. You have a young man who stands in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. I mean that is, I think, our human nature; human nature is to direct our own lives and to resist control."
Pink believes the greatest things that have happened in human civilization have been the result of people being able to do what they wanted to do:
"Most great pieces of art, most great pieces of music, many great architectural triumphs, many great technological innovations, the things that last and endure, are often the product, obviously, of human ingenuity, but also the product of the autonomy that allowed people to be ingenious," he says.
Another element of intrinsic motivation, says Pink, is the element of mastery. That is, "the desire to get better at things."
He quotes a recent Harvard business school research that shows that the biggest motivator at work - by far - is making progress.
"The days that people feel most engaged, most motivated, are the days when they've made some progress in their work," he says.
Pinks believes that one of a manager's biggest roles is to help people see their progress, and to recognize and celebrate it. Making progress he says, "is one of those things that [make up] the virtuous circle, so that if you make progress one day, you're more likely to be motivated, which makes it more likely that you'll make progress the next day."
In addition to autonomy and mastery, says Pink, there's a third element of intrinsic motivation, the universal human desire for a sense of purpose.
"We tend to work better when we know what we're doing matters in some way," he says. "Not necessarily matters in some super transcendent eliminate-green-house-gases from the atmosphere way, but can be simply writing a great story that helps people understand their world a little bit better; or creating a product that makes people live their lives a little easier, or creating something that brings beauty to somebody's life."
Daniel Pink believes that as we learn more about the science of human motivation, society will adapt.
"I think that what the science shows here is very much in sync with our instincts," he says.
"Humans are complex. They're different. We have a mix of drives. We do things for silly irrational reasons and we do things because of getting the reward or the punishment, but we also do things for big, transcendent reasons," he says. "That's part of what it is to be human - and now you have a body of science that shows what I think we know in our hearts - and I think that's a pretty good combination."
Pink says today's business managers, facing the increasingly competitive pressures of a global marketplace, may be more inclined than ever before to question traditional attitudes about what motivates, and ultimately fulfills us, as humans.