Pink: Embrace Three Principles of Motivation

Best-selling author says most companies practice terribly outdated methods of staff motivation.

June 21, 2011
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“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 “The problem is, most organizations have ignored the research and continue to practice terribly outdated methods of employee motivation.”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.”

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Great article! Unfortunately, most employees don’t feel valued or appreciated by their supervisors or employers. In fact, research has shown that the predominant reason team members quit their jobs is because they don’t feel valued. This is in spite of the fact that employee recognition programs have proliferated in the workplace – over 90% of all organizations in the U.S. has some form of employee recognition activities in place. But most employee recognition programs are viewed with skepticism and cynicism – because they aren’t viewed as being genuine in their communication of appreciation. Getting the “employee of the month” award, receiving a certificate of recognition, or a “Way to go, team!” email just don’t get the job done. How do you communicate authentic appreciation? We have found people have different ways that they want to be shown appreciation, and if you don’t communicate in the language of appreciation important to them, you essentially “miss the mark”. Additionally, employees need to receive recognition more than once a year at their performance review. Otherwise, they view the praise as “going through the motions”. A third component of authentic appreciation is that the communication has to be about them personally – not the department, not their group, but something they did. Finally, they have to believe that you mean what you say. How you treat them has to match the words you use. If you are not sure how your team members want to be shown appreciation, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory ( will identify the language of appreciation and specific actions preferred by each employee. You then can create a group profile for your team, so everyone knows how to encourage one another. Remember, employees want to know that they are valued for what they contribute to the success of the organization. And communicating authentic appreciation in the ways they desire it can make the difference between keeping your quality team members or having a negative work environment that everyone wants to leave. Paul White, Ph.D., is the co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr. Gary Chapman.

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