Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive’: A Short Journey on a Tiny Piece of Road

Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us is being mentioned more and more as a good introduction to understanding workplace motivation. I’m not familiar with any of Pink’s other work, some of which has been fiercely criticized. But I was motivated (so to speak) to read this book because I teach about motivation in some of my classes, and some of my research deals with it as well. So I am always interested in what someone has to say about this particular topic.

Drive isn’t a textbook or an academic book. It’s a popular press book, and as such it’s clearly intended as a Malcolm Gladwell-style book – research experiments explained in an understandable way, and useful practical advice based on that research. The spare design of Drive’s cover even mimics the design of the covers of Gladwell’s books, and Pink’s writing follows Gladwell’s style of grandiose declarations and confident assertions. But, unlike Gladwell, Pink accurately describes the research he writes about, and I commend him for that.  I also applaud him for explaining how motivation is both intrinsic and extrinsic (and pointing out that each kind has different effects), and for emphasizing that just throwing money at workers isn’t going to make them work harder. These are realities of motivation that often get ignored and which are always worth talking about.

Unfortunately, though, there’s more wrong with Drive than there is right. And when I say “wrong”, I don’t mean factually wrong. I mean that Drive is very selective in what it discusses – and the net effect of this selectivity is that Drive‘s depiction of workplace motivation is very superficial, and somewhat misleading.

To be fair to Pink, Drive clearly isn’t intended as an authoritative guide to workplace motivation research. According to my search in the EbscoHost databases, almost 123,000 research articles about motivation were published between 1950 (the date of the first research article cited in Drive) and 2008  (the year before Drive was published). That’s a very large amount of research to even attempt to summarize. But Drive‘s basic premise is that while workplaces have changed, our understanding of motivation hasn’t – and that’s not accurate.

Is Drive headed in the wrong direction? (credit//www.photoree.com/Creative Commons)

Is Drive headed in the wrong direction? (credit: photoree.com/Creative Commons)

When Pink outlines the history of motivation theories (on pages 18 to 21 of Drive), he stops after Douglas McGregor and McGregor’s Theory X and Y in the early 1960s. He then argues that workplaces have changed since then – no disagreement from me on that point – and contends that our understanding of motivation also needs an “upgrade”. Pink proposes to remedy this situation with his own categories of Type X and Type I behaviours (explained on pages 77 through 80), and then spends the rest of the text explaining how these categories are more meaningful and useful to motivate workers in 21st century workplaces.

Here’s four major theories of motivation that Pink never mentions:

  • Frederick Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory (also known as the two-factor theory). While this theory hasn’t been strongly supported by research, it makes the important point that if workers are dissatisfied with basic things in their workplace – like working conditions, salary, and job security – then it will be difficult to motivate them with any kind of reward.
  • Clayton Alderfer’s ERG theory. This theory builds on the work of Abraham Maslow by suggesting that workers are motivated by the desire to fulfill their perceived needs, and that some needs will only become relevant once others needs are fulfilled. In other words, there is a hierarchy of needs, and what motivates a worker at any given time will depend where they are located on that hierarchy. (Amazingly, despite the huge influence of Maslow’s work on motivation theory and research, and how widely Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is taught, Maslow gets only one short mention in Drive.)
  • Douglas McClelland’s achievement motivation theory (or ‘needs theory’) This theory suggests that workers are motivated by their perceived needs to achieve, to gain power, and to feel affiliated with others.  McClelland proposes that these needs are not instinctive, but are instead acquired or learned through experience, which is particularly important in understanding the actions of adult workers in the context of a workplace. Workers’ motivations may change as they acquire these needs, or have more experience with them.
  • Victor Vroom’s expectancy theory. This theory suggests that if workers are going to be motivated to achieve a certain level of performance associated with an outcome, the workers need to believe that their effort will translate into performance; that their performance will result in an outcome; and that the reward associated with the outcome is valuable enough to them to justify their effort.

All of these theories are post-1960, and all of them have important insights into motivation that are largely missing from Drive:

  • the idea that an individual’s needs change across time;
  • the idea that needs can be learned or acquired;
  • the idea that some needs are more important to fulfill than others; and,
  • the idea that motivation is useless if what’s needed to perform (such as adequate raw materials, or appropriate work space) is missing.

These theories provide a much deeper understanding of motivation and its effects than does Pink’s Type X and Type I theorizing – which, we should note, is not supported by any empirical research, but only by the anecdotal workplace examples he discusses.

Drive is also very fuzzy on the link between motivation and performance. Pink seems to assume that motivation will automatically result in the desired performance, which is far from true. Workers can be very motivated and still perform poorly, if, for example, they haven’t been adequately trained, or if their desired outcomes are different from the organization’s desired outcomes. Think of the character Wally in the comic strip Dilbert. Wally is highly motivated, but he’s motivated to do as little work as possible. Drive also discusses goals, ability, and control as components of motivation – but since these have already all been well recognized and investigated in existing research, it’s unclear why Pink presents them as innovations or revelations.

Another problem with Drive is its selectivity in the authors of the research that it cites. Three researchers are discussed throughout the book: Edward Deci, Teresa Amabile, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. All of these people are very well-regarded and influential researchers. However, there are many other prolific and influential researchers whose work on workplace motivation is completely ignored: Ed Lawler, Lyman Porter, Richard Hackman, Greg Oldham and Gary Latham, just to name a few. The book is not incomplete without their work, but it’s definitely missing some important insights. For example, Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristics model addresses the same factors of autonomy, skill development, and clear goal-setting as does Pink’s Type X and Type I theory. Hackman and Oldham’s model also identifies several other aspects of job design which Pink’s theory doesn’t address – such as feedback and feeling that one’s work is meaningful –  which could also affect workers’ level of motivation.

And although the research that is cited is accurately described, there are parts of it that are ignored. For example, the results of Baard, Deci and Ryan’s 2004 study of bank employees suggested that gender could influence motivation in different ways – but Drive doesn’t mention this. In fact, there is no mention anywhere in Drive of the possibility that the process of motivation might work differently for men and for women. And it’s not as though Pink didn’t have enough room to include more content in the book. The last 71 pages consist only of a “toolkit” of worksheets, questionnaires, suggested readings, and other add-ons.

In summary, Drive is useful as far as it goes in describing motivation, and if it makes any readers think differently about motivation, that’s a good thing. But while Pink is enthusiastic about his topic, the holes in his theorizing might lead one to question how well he really understands what he’s explaining and (allegedly) improving on. Drive‘s subtitle promises “the surprising truth”, but almost all of what Drive has to say is no surprise, because it’s been said already, and not all of it is true either. Drive‘s main contribution to knowledge about motivation may be as an example of clever packaging and smart marketing.

10 comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and reasoned critique of Drive. I am more familiar with Gladwell’s work than Pink’s, but I know how popular Pink is with my friends in the “creativity” movement, of which I travel a bit. (Not surprised to see he relies on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a fair amount, as I have in the past). You were right to pair them, because both come to subjects not as experts but as really smart and analytical writers. They then aggregate and disseminate material that others have already developed but haven’t had the writing chops or connections to get in front of a larger audience. Then, unfortunately, they sometimes receive credit for someone else’s insight. (How often have you heard that it is Gladwell’s insight about 10,000 hours of practice, when the research he quoted was done by Anders Ericsson; it’s not Gladwell’s insight, he merely reported it widely.)

    These books, to be published, are required to have a broadly connected thesis. As such, the writer chooses what to include and what to exclude. I suspect Pink chose to exclude some examples you mention to suit his narrative. I suspect he also didn’t know about some of the examples you mention, because again, he is a writer/aggregator. I read Gladwell as somebody who can make me think and direct me to topics and research I want to learn more about on my own. I don’t view him as a source of inspiration and insight himself. I think Pink would fit in that same category. But if people rely solely on his work, and that work is incomplete, then yes, there’s a problem there.

  2. Did you read the same DRiVe that I read? This critique seems like a petty academic effort to score points rather than an effort to really understand Pink’s work (though the comments about Gladwell are right on!).

    Virtually all of the issues you raise about DRiVe are actually covered in the book and in thoughtful ways. For instance, he talks at length about the need to satisfy minimum requirements before his three categories (autonomy, mastery and purpose) on motivation are effective. In addition, his definition of Purpose encompasses many of the areas you say are missing. Perhaps most important, in more than 15 years in working with organizations to improve performance and develop more robust and positive cultures, I can attest that his three categories of motivation are absolutely the core of any change initiative.

    However, I will point out one flaw. He always presents his categories of motivation in the same order and this is incorrect. The order matters. If you want to create a high performing organization, begin by collectively defining a compelling purpose — a social good — for the organization. Once everyone has a compelling purpose, they will quickly develop mastery — i.e. people will be good at their jobs. Only then do people earn autonomy. If you just do these three things in this order, all other issues of motivation disappear.

  3. Thanks for your observations, William. We’ll have to agree to disagree on the “petty academic” point – if someone is presenting their concept of motivation as being better than what’s known or practiced already, it’s not “petty” to point out that the validity of that premise is undermined if there isn’t an adequate understanding of what is already known.
    Pink’s three categories are not wrong – they’re just not new. They have all been addressed in the published research that he overlooked.

    1. Thanks for sending this along, Dan. It’s a fascinating discussion that raises many important points. Intrinsic motivation as it was once understood may also be diminishing because of the breaking of what’s been called the “psychological contract” – the workers give their commitment and support to the company in the expectation that the company will treat them fairly and support them as well. If organizations are more reluctant to offer permanent employment and long-term benefits such as pensions, workers may also be less motivated to support the company. And I agree that it’s profoundly depressing that organizations are co-opting the idea of meaningful and rewarding work – the basis of intrinsic motivation – to mask over employment practices that are anything but fair. It’s reminiscent of how some employers in the early part of the 20th century used company-sponsored sports and social events to quell worker unrest.

  4. Fiona, I found this post as I was participating in a discussion here on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/grp/post/78865-6047825502251597825#commentID_discussion%3A6047825502251597825%3Agroup%3A78865

    Your four observations about what’s missing from Pink’s work are very helpful. I find the first, that individual needs change across time, most powerful because that makes it imperative that managers and leaders have quality, individualized relationships with the people on their teams so that, as their needs change, efforts to maximize their motivaiton can change too.

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