Why Carrots & Sticks Don't Work Anymore

I watch The Office religiously. I adore the show for its humor and for the fact that it shines a light on the absurdity of most workplaces. Since his seminal article “Free Agent Nation” first appeared in Fast Company in 1997, I’ve also been a fan of Daniel Pink. At that time, he articulated beautifully something that many people were already beginning to feel in relation to their work: that most of us were tired of working incredibly hard for companies that lacked leadership and didn’t share our basic values.

He posited that those who declared themselves “free agents” usually brought in a lot more money than they had earned during their years in corporate America. They also felt more invigorated and secure than they ever did in “traditional” jobs. A free agent believes that work is personal – and that one can achieve a beautiful synchronicity between who you are and what you do.

From petty office politics to bosses pitting employees against one another, to colleagues who don’t pull their weight, most workplaces are a study in dysfunction. But we have been conditioned to think that the best way to motivate ourselves (and others) is through external rewards like money and title – what Daniel Pink calls the “carrot-and-the-stick approach”.

In his new book Drive:The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink says the key to high performance and satisfaction is intrinsic, internal motivation: the desire to follow your own interests and understand the benefits in them for you. And Daniel Pink has discovered thirty years of scientific data that confirm these outmoded ideas about work and motivation, showing us an exciting way forward.

To gain a better understanding, watch his presentation at TEDGlobal:

Here is an extract of my recent conversation with Daniel (DP):

AM: When have you stepped outside of your comfort zone?

DP: Around the time I was 22 or 23, I realized that except for two trips to Canada, I had never been outside the United States. So in the next couple of years, I took slight detours from the path I was on – and spent several months in southern Africa and several more in India. Both were life-changing experiences — precisely because they were often uncomfortable.

AM: How would you define your own particular “gift”?

DP: I’d actually resist the notion that I — or most people — have any “gift.” I think there are things people love doing — that feel, in some sense, “natural.” But that’s only a beginning. The rest is hard, hard work over many years. Show me someone with a “gift,” who isn’t willing to put in the time — and I’ll show you someone who probably isn’t contributing much.

AM: Can you define, briefly, the carrot & stick method of motivation, and why you think that it is not optimal for peak performance?

DP: A lot of business revolves around “If-then” rewards — “If you do this, then you’ll get that.” “If-then” rewards work really well for simple, rule-based routine tasks. But there’s about three decades of evidence that shows that for complex, right-brain, non-routine tasks, these sorts of rewards don’t work — and often do harm. These sorts of tasks require a wide focus. But rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus. And again, that’s not speculation. In the world of behavioral science, this is well know. The problem is that there’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

AM: What are the kinds of questions that someone considering a job offer should ask themselves in order to make a sound decision?

DP: I think the key always is to find something you love to do and that you’re willing to work hard to get great at. If you’re intrinsically motivated to do something and then do it persistently, you’re golden. So the key really is self-knowledge. The other element I’d add is to do as much due diligence as you can about the sorts of people who work at the place you’re considering or even who pursue the industry you’re thinking of. In my experience, people don’t take seriously enough the impact of the prospective peers when they’re considering these sorts of decisions.

AM: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received in relation to work/career?

DP: “>When I was in college, I wrote a letter to James Fallows, who was a journalist I admired (and still admire) and asked him for advice. He told me essentially to do something different, to get off the traditional path — to join the Navy or learn how to race stock cars or something like that. That really stuck with me. I think it’s important, especially when young, to try a variety of things. That’s one reason I’ve tried to travel as much as possible — and why, as I mentioned above, I went to Africa and Asia. It also probably contributed to my decision to try to go out on my own, which ended up being the second best decision I’ve ever made. (The best was marrying my wife.)

AM: What surprises you about yourself?

DP: That I make the same mistakes twice. There are certain things I believe about doing great work — starting early, making progress each day, avoiding distractions — that I often find myself honoring more in the breach than in the observance.

AM: What was the defining moment in your past which helped you to realize your full potential?

DP: Hmmm. I think I’m still waiting for it!

AM: What do you do on a daily/monthly basis that scares you?

DP: I guess I have two answers to that. On the one hand, I probably don’t do enough that scares me. On the other hand, staring into a blank computer screen with the blinking cursor daring you to create some words is a source of regular terror.

AM: What are you most afraid of?

DP: Running out of time.

Daniel H. Pink is the author of a trio of provocative, bestselling books on the changing world of work. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future charts the rise of right-brain thinking in modern economies and describes the six abilities individuals and organizations must master in an outsourced, automated age. A Whole New Mind is a long-running New York Times and BusinessWeek bestseller that has been translated into 19 languages. It is also the basis of a public television special, “Daniel Pink: Living on the Right Side of the Brain,” that premieres nationwide in the spring of 2009. Dan’s latest work is The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, the first American business book in the Japanese comic format known as manga. His first book, Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself, was a Washington Post bestseller that Publishers Weekly says “has become a cornerstone of employee-management relations.” Dan lives with his wife and their three children in Washington, DC, where he is at work on his next book, to be published in 2010.