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This is an email conversation which I have recently had regarding Dan Pink’s theory in his book:
‘Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’
Incidentally, perhaps in the future we might publish collections of emails (in the same way that past theorists published collections of letters, or have had them published post-humously)?

Original Email:

I have recently finished reading a book called Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us by Daniel H Pink.  In this book, Dan looks at Motivation from the beginning – Food Water shelter and procreation – which he refers to as Motivation 1.0.  He then looks at motivation as it exists in the current word – maximising profit, target focused, driven by carrot and stick motivation techniques – which he refers to as Motivation 2.0.   And then he then outlines Motivation 3.0 as the need to become purpose focused, rather than profit focused, and points to a number of organisations that are taking this step.  In this new model, motivation is intrinsic, (rather than extrinsic as in Motivation 2.0) and is no longer driven by personal or corporate greed.

As you know, I have often criticised the fact that no one puts forward an alternative way, but just points out what is wrong with the current models – which there are many things!  In his book, I believe Dan starts to outline an alternative that is achievable and will make a difference, and certainly one that I am going to do some more research around. There is no talk of resistance, rebellion or uprising, just a better way of working in a world where both people and corporations are driven by a purpose and not profit. That does not mean that making money is not important, because it is, but making excessive money to satisfy shareholder value rather than a more social / intrinsic purpose, is not sustainable.

He refers to intrinsic motivation as being made up of:

  • Autonomy – allowing people to work when, how and with who they want to
  • Mastery – allowing people to become the best in their field
  • Purpose – providing the context for Autonomy and Mastery – “i.e. the what we do”

The book has really resonated with me, and if you have time to read it, I would welcome your thoughts on it.

Response:

I haven’t read the book, but I have seen this video (RSA videos are amazing!):
Whilst I think its interesting, not least because it challenges the monetary reward meritocracy championed by neoliberal capitalism, I think there are a few issues with the theory.
1) “Dan looks at Motivation from the beginning”
What is the beginning which he/you refer to here? There is no history except through how we perceive it and therefore we view the supposed ‘facts’ of history through our present preconceptions only. So here, looking at motivation back in time is in fact a rhetorical advice to suggest that this is somehow innate or legitimate behaviour. But actually, it could be argued that such narratives are simply justifications for the current system (just look at the language used – ‘profit’ and ‘techniques’ – which could have come straight out of a boardroom meeting). In other words, the argument that ‘this is the way we should think about now because this is the way they we were made‘ is actually backwards and should read: ‘this is the way we think about how we were made because this is the way we think about now‘. Most often, such readings of history are in fact a myth which simply give away the author’s own agenda rather than enlighten us on some universal truth.
2) ‘I have often criticised the fact that no one puts forward an alternative way, but just points out what is wrong with the current models’
Absolutely! But this is sometimes used as an excuse for intellectual stasis. You often hear it at the end of an argument: ‘oh, alright then, capitalism sucks… but what’s your alternative?’ somehow rendering all your criticisms of the current system void because there isn’t an immediately coherent model to replace capitalism. There is of course that elephant in the room – communism – which you feel could be said at any moment followed by a massive laugh and rolling of the eyes at the very idea. But even though everyone knows that there has never been a true application of the ideals of communism, they choose not to know (for example, what exactly is ‘communist’ – in the true sense of the word – about death camps, space races and enforced labour?!)
Having said that, the point is that even if we don’t appear to have an immediate alternative, this shouldn’t stop us from considering the possibility. Only by acting in fidelity to the idea that there could be an alternative will allow one to appear (see Badiou). This is what happened with capitalism/modernity when the French said ‘hmm, we dont need to live in feudalism, lets change it’ and its precisely this utopian thinking which has been lost and rendered us impotent in the face of the current mess: we all know neoliberalism doesn’t work (just look at the budget today!) yet we dont know what the alternative is so we choose not to think of one.
3) ‘There is no talk of resistance, rebellion or uprising, just a better way of working in a world where both people and corporations are driven by a purpose and not profit’
Personally, I would say this is a bit of a contradiction. I dont think its possible to overcome a profit driven society (i.e. capitalism) without some sort of resistance/rebellion/revolution which changes the horizon of the situation and makes people think differently. To be driven by purpose and not profit is Marxism (he talks of capitalism ‘alienating’ us from our ‘species-being’ which is to be creative) and this would take a monumental change to implement. Unfortunately, what I feel with Pink, is he is too wrapped up in the capitalist-business way of thinking, and needs to engage more with another way of thinking by using a different language
4) He refers to intrinsic motivation as being made up of:
Autonomy – allowing people to work when, how and with who they want to
Mastery – allowing people to become the best in their field
Purpose – providing the context for Autonomy and Mastery – “i.e. the what we do”
This demonstrates well my uneasiness with his theory, because these are all ides which I dont think in anyway contradict what the current ideology (ruling ideas) of society are. Aren’t Cameron & Co precisely for allowing people to work and strive to be the best? The ‘purpose’ idea is perhaps slightly better (but only because its a Marxist one!) The problem with this way of thinking, is the word ‘allowing’: people are allowed to work and are allowed to be the best they can be in the current society – the point is that they are unable to under the current system. This is the difference between the liberal notion of freedom (which is the freedom from intervention) and the egalitarian notion of freedom (which is the freedom from oppression). For example, is someone is in poverty, the current system would say ‘well, you’re free to get a job aren’t you? work yourself out of it!’ shifting the responsibility on to them and ignoring the social mechanisms which would allow that person to get a job (e.g. education, past experience, gender, ethnicity, geographic location globally as well as nationally). Instead, we should say that true freedom is the freedom from oppression which sometimes does require intervention to ensure that people are not being oppressed.
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2 thoughts on “A Critique of Dan Pink

  1. I wish to state that there is a difference in the motivational aspects on marginal work vs. continuous activity. That is – for doing an additional activity to that being done currently – the findings of the Studies that Mr. Pink refers to hold true. Since that is the context of the study.

    However, if the context is changed to regular work – the conclusions would change to align to standard understanding of motivation reflected by individual needs for increased compensation packages with the passsage of time.

    This also holds true of corporations – we are seeing increasings recalls from the industry majors, as compared to the other industry players, specifically in pharmaceutical, medical devices and automobiles.

    Thus the aspect of the findings is critical – marginal work vs. regular work.

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