Saturday, December 8, 2012

'The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us', by Jocelyn McLean

At my brother’s convocation, my dad was asked to address the graduating class. The overarching theme of his speech was a question he had asked us regularly while we were young: if money were not an object, what would you do with your life? This question, and the ideas behind it, is something he reminds my brothers and I of regularly. What are you passionate about? When you take money out of the equation, what is it that motivates you?

I stumbled across this lively RSA Animate video by Dan Pink about that very question which  illustrates the hidden truths behind what really motivates us at home and in the workplace. He tackles the fundamental assumption that (financial) rewards are the fundamental motivator for performance. Based on this assumption, performance quality should increase with larger incentives. An economics study found that this was true for tasks that required only mechanical skill; however, once a task required more cognitive and creative thinking, larger rewards in fact led to poorer performance.

According to Dan Pink’s research, there are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Our desire for autonomy is essential our desire to be able to direct our own lives. To me, this factor is incredibly important in the workplace for two reasons. The first is that self-direction allows for more growth than a structured, complacent environment. When given the opportunity to focus on their areas of interest and expertise, and to think creatively about these areas, human beings have the capacity to be incredibly innovative. The second reason is that being given the opportunity for self-direction by an employer is a sign of respect. It fosters a trusting relationship in the workplace, which ultimately leads to a better environment and increased productivity.

People have a natural inclination to master certain skills. This is something we see on a daily basis from people outside of their careers in their everyday lives. From music lessons to athletics, human beings regularly strive to develop and master new skills. It is important for me to go to bed every night feeling that I have improved myself in some way from the day before. Giving people the opportunity to master these skills that they value benefits both employees and employers; it provides employees with intrinsic satisfaction in the work they are doing, and allows employers to both train and maintain the top talent in their field. 

This is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of my father’s question. It is not only what you want to do with your life, but also why you want to do it. What impact do you want to make? At the end of the day, people want to feel that they have done something worthwhile - that they have contributed their skill to something of value. This factor for intrinsic motivation can be seen in the incredible amount of hours devoted to volunteer work by people all around the world.

Dan Pink outlines the constant struggle between profit and purpose-based motivation. In extreme cases, valuing profit over purpose can lead to corruption. In most cases, however, it simply leads to bad results. Bad products, bad services, and therefore bad returns. Recently, the companies that are flourishing are the companies that are prioritizing purpose in the workplace. When people feel good about the products or services they are providing, you can imagine that people will feel good about consuming them as well. 

The video below is a 10-minute excerpt of Dan Pink’s lecture. Take a break to grab a cup of coffee and watch it – it’s worth it!

No copyright infringement intended. For educational, non-commercial purposes only.


  1. Really interesting and worth watching video! It’s clearly not about the money but those three key words: people are not horses, that’s it, people need challenges to solve with some kind of freedom, to prove they can improve and make a difference with the results. We are really motivated about our work when out of the workplace, in our free time, we suddenly bump into interesting stuff and think “hmmm, I can use this at work” or when (let’s say, at 1 am) we gladly find a solution about a work issue.

  2. Ok folks. Now you are ready to read (ready to read? an alliteration!!! OMG I'm improving) : "La inteligencia creadora" by José Antonio Marina. And this is your task for the next month (read it) and your entire life (perform it)...or not

    1. Dear Robert,
      I'm afraid I read J.A. Marina's "La inteligencia fracasada. Teoría y práctica de la estupidez" a few years ago... only to realize what a fool I am...
      All the best, my friend ;)


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