Dan Pink on Motivation

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Daniel H. Pink is the author of several provocative, bestselling books about business, work, and behavior. His TED Talk on the science of motivation is one of the 10 most-watched TED Talks of all time, with more than 20 million views[1] In his book "Drive, The Surprising truth About What Motivates Us", Pink questions the classical school of extrinsic motivation which is based on earning rewards and avoiding punishment. According to Pink classical reward systems fail with increasing task complexity and can have a negative impact on performance. Extrinsic motivation occurs when the motivation to perform a behavior or engage in an activity is based on an outcome which can be either positive or negative. Pink uses the analogy of “carrots and sticks”, implicating that good performance will be rewarded, while low performance will be punished. Even though this external attempt to motivation might work for simple, routine tasks, the findings presented by Pink show that with increasing task complexity, this form of motivation yields decreased performance. Intrinsic motivation on the other hand arises from within and involves performing a behavior or engaging in an activity for the sake of itself. A person might simply enjoy a certain activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize potentials. In order to properly address 21st century challenges a new approach based on intrinsic motivation will yield higher performance. Pinks approach revolves around autonomy, mastery and purpose.[2]This approach acknowledges recent trends like outsourcing and automation and the subsequent changes in the nature of our jobs, which are becoming more complex and increasingly demand cognitive skills. In the context of project management, managers have to be aware of the underlying motivations that drive people. Human capital is a very important resource in projects, and has to be managed effectively to increase performance and achieve better results. Managers need to understand how to motivate team members in different situations and should create a working environment that nurtures autonomy, mastery and purpose. The last part of the article will therefore focus on how Pinks suggestions can be utilized in the process of developing and managing a project team effectively and give some hands-on advice to project managers.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation exists, whenever an activity is performed or a behavior adopted in order to obtain some separable outcome. According to Ryan and Deci there are however different kinds of extrinsic motivation that differ by the degree of their autonomy. Therefore, motivation can range from amotivation or unwillingness, to passive compliance, to active personal commitment. With increasing autonomy, the perceived locus of causality shifts from impersonal, to external, to internal.[3]

From Amotivation to Integrated Regulation

Figure 1: Taxonomy of human motivation after Ryan and Deci[3]

Amotivation describes the sere lack of motivation. The activity is not valued and no positive outcomes are expected. At this point an individual is not even motivated by extrinsic motivators. The least autonomous form of extrinsic motivation is external regulation. Activities are performed to satisfy an external demand or obtain an externally imposed reward. This form of extrinsic motivation is the most commonly associated form and was also recognized by operant theorists like B.F. Skinner. According to Skinner behaviors that result in pleasant consequences are likely to be repeated, and behaviors followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated.[4] In modern business operating systems rewards can take the form of bonuses, variable salaries, pay raises, etc. Another form of extrinsic motivation is introjected regulation. According to Ryan and Deci, under this form of motivation individuals still feel pressured by immaterial factors and self-esteem. They engage in activities in order to avoid guilt and public shaming or to attain ego-enhancement or pride. Even if there is no material or monetary reward, the source of the behavior is still external. The perceived pressure to perform in a working environment can lead to severe health problems and burn out. A more internal form of extrinsic behavior is identification, where the individual has identified with the importance of the activity or behavior. It has been accepted as necessary. The most autonomous form of extrinsic motivation is integrated regulation which occurs when an individual has fully assimilated the regulations. The reasons for an action are not only accepted but also absorbed and brought into congruence with other personal values and needs. Integrated regulation shares aspects with intrinsic motivation but is still externally induced.[3] Figure 1 illustrates the different forms of human motivation, from amotivation on the left, through all the forms of extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation on the right. With increasing autonomy, the perceived locus of causality also shifts from impersonal, to external, to internal leading to increased acceptance and identification with the task or behavior.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is defined as performing an activity or adopting a behavior for its inherent satisfaction rather than for a separable outcome. The behavior arises from the inside and the reward lies in the activity itself. This opposes operant theory, which states that all behaviors are motivated by rewards. This special form of motivation roots back to a natural drive of learning and exploring and can be observed from birth onwards in human development.

Research in intrinsic motivation emphasizes conditions that sustain and facilitate this kind of motivation rather than diminish it. Tangible rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation, shifting people from a possibly existing internal to a more external perceived locus of causality.[3]The same goes for less tangible rewards perceived self-esteem, threats, deadlines, directives and competitive pressure. According to Deci and Ryan’s Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) external interpersonal events and structures like rewards, communication and feedback can enhance intrinsic motivation if they are directed towards an individual’s feeling of competence. CET further specifies, that this feeling of competence should be accompanied by a sense of autonomy. Pink also partly centers his new approach around autonomy and competence, which he calls mastery.

Key Findings

According to Pink carrots and sticks don’t work. The focus on extrinsic motivators can even be severely harmful. The seven flaws are the following.[2]

Carrots and sticks can:

• Extinguish intrinsic motivation

• Diminish performance

• Crush creativity
Figure 2: Motivational framework after Pink[2]

• Crowd out good behavior

• Encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior

• Become addictive

• Foster short-term thinking

There are however some occasions where extrinsic motivators can increase performance. Rewards by their very nature narrow our focus. In order to get the promoted reward, a certain task has to be accomplished faster or more productive. This approach is easy in routine situations with a clear set of rules. In other words, when the task is well defined and no cognitive skills are required. [2] Even though projects involve less of these kinds of tasks, they still occur and have to be dealt with. Managers can deal with them by openly acknowledging that the task is boring, offer a rational why the task is still necessary and allow team members to complete the task in their own way.[2] However, as tasks become more complex and demand more cognitive skills, rewards fail to improve performance. In situations that require looking outside the box, a narrow focus is not helpful. Therefore, in order to avoid the seven flaws, extrinsic motivators should be reduced and replaced with deeper elements of motivation which are discussed in the New Approach. Figure 2 provides an overview on how the decision process on how to motivate idividuals can be structured.

21st Century Challenges

20th century work was task-oriented and characterized by manual work. Global trends like communication and computer technology, outsourcing and automation have shifted the focus of our work in the 21st century. It has become much more conceptual and less defined. Even in blue-collar work the predominant trends are towards team-based work systems and towards work that increases the degree of control and task scope and therefore requires higher cognitive and interactive skills and activities. In managerial work new ideas and insights about how to organize people are emerging. Managerial jobs in project team organizations involve the successful management of social processes within the team.[5] Managing and team-working capabilities are needed. In order to deliver on complex projects, the motivation of team members can have a considerable impact on the project deliverable. Pinks approach to motivation is therefore highly relevant in the changing work environment. An increased focus on intrinsic motivation seems inevitable. However before that, more existential human needs have to be satisfied. According to Maslows hirarchy of needs, people strive towards self-actualization. Peoples full potential and motivation can therefore only be unlocked after more basic needs like safety and esteem needs are met. This suggests that underlying conditions such as fair wages and a respectful climate at work have to be guaranteed. Managers have to be aware of these underlying conditions, if they want to fully draw upon their human resources.[6]

The New Approach

Pinks approach is based on the assumption that we are intrinsically motivated to do things when we think they matter, they are interesting, or we simply like them. In order to generate an environment which nurtures this inner drive, Pink centers his approach around three factors, which are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the urge to direct our own lifes. Therefore, managers have to decrease control, as control leads to compliance, but autonomy to engagement which is internally driven and therefore more effective. In this context Pink uses four essential components people have to take ownership over. These are task, time, technique and team.[2] Mastery is the desire to get better at something that personally matters to us.[2] Perusing learning goals instead of concrete outcomes yields more motivation and good outcomes in the long-run. Mastery therefore should be anchored in a persons mindset. Managers have to allow this personal development to some extent that focuses less on deadlines and deliverables but on the learning process. This will shape better and more competent employees that will be able to aim for higher targets. However, even though you can get close to mastery, it can never be fully achieved. Purpose is the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. Autonomous people that work towards mastery can perform even better, if they do it in the service of something bigger.[2] In order to achieve intrinsical motivation and a project manager has to be aware of these factors and create an environment, that is aware of to these needs and furthermore nurtures them.

Application in Project Human Resource Management

Human capital is becoming one of the most important resources in todays work environments. In order to increase performance and achieve better results, human resources have to be managed effectively. This includes an understanding of how to motivate project team members.

Project management practices are based on control and task oriented processes. This implies a rather external locus of control. As discussed in The Key Findings and shown in Figure 2, team managers have to acknowledge the fact that there will be some routine tasks in the project. These have to be identified and communicated with the team. Using extrinsic motivators for these tasks can yield higher performance. The majority of tasks however will be more conceptual and less defined. There are several ways to increase intrinsic motivation within project teams. Transferring Pinks findings to project management, the goal should therefore be to foster intrinsic motivation by maximizing autonomy, mastery and purpose. Within the PMBOK these approaches in managing human resources fall within the chapter of project resource management, which concerns itself with the planning, estimating, acquiring and control of resources, as well as the development and management of the project team.[7] Especially the task of developing the team offers the opportunity to enhance intrinsic motivation. In the best case project managers already have chosen intrinsically motivated people during the acquisition phase. Concrete questions on how a possible candidate for the team is motivated to work on the project can be helpful during this phase and make a difference in the long-run. Developing the team is concerned with the process of improving competencies, team member interaction, and the overall team environment to enhance project performance.[7] The following approach will identify possibilities, on how a project manager can address the three dimensions mastery, purpose and autonomy in the process of developing the project team.


According to Pink, mastery is a mindset, that needs practice and can be grown and improved. The working environment needs allow this process to a certain extent. Individual competences should be recognized, targeted and stimulated. It is important to correctly motivate team members during the course of the project. Good managers should offer valuable feedback, and support along the way. With respect to mastery a manager should acknowledge individual competencies, encourage personal growth and put people in positions where they can grow.[8] Deci and Ryan have shown, that rewards can enhance intrinsic motivation, when they are directed towards an individual’s feeling of competence rather than a concrete outcome.[3] A project manager should therefore, motivate the team members during the project life-cycle rather than at the end. Intangible rewards rather than monetary rewards can also have a better effect.[7] An extrinsic reward should be unexpected and offered only after a task is complete.[2] This way the focus is not being narrowed during the working process.


Empowering the team members and encouraging them to take ownership of the project is a direct way to address what Pink calls purpose. This involves the involvement all team members in project planning and decision-making processes. This will increase the team members feeling of identification with the project as he can actively influence decisions and shape the course of the project.[7] Managers should also envision the bigger picture and scope of the project and help team members relate to it with their individual contribution. In some cases private capital can serve as a tool for ownership and accountability. In this case team members private ownership in the project gives incentives for delivering realistic estimates of future costs and revenues from the project.[9] However, it can be argued that this is a rather extrinsic approach, that is eventually based on the outcome. The focus should therefore be on the projects purpose maximization rather than profit maximazation, to create a good deliverable in order to create value. Team members should be proud of being part of the project and the fact that they are creating value. Managers need good communicational and human skills to promote the bigger picture and scope of the project.


In order to achieve more autonomy, managers have to promote self-direction. This includes looking for ways to increase the amount of autonomy people have over their task, time, team, and technique. There are emerging concepts like hackathons and FedEx days that create opportunities for creativity despite the regular work and encourage creativity and independent working.[8] Flexible working hours also increase autonomy. Managers can take three rather simple but effective steps towards decreasing control. First is to involve team members in goal-setting, so that they can decide on the goals, how and when to achieve them. Second is the use of non-controlling language. Using phrases like “think about” or “consider” instead of words like “must” or “should“ promote engagement over compliance. A third step are open office hours instead of fixed appointments. This encourages team members to bring up certain project related topics, whenever they think it is relevant. [2]

Another very concrete concept to maximize a team’s autonomy is the concept of self-organized teams, where a team works without centralized control. The project manager provides the team with the necessary environment and support, but except from that takes a passive role. The team members have to come up with concepts and solutions themselves rather than solving externally imposed tasks.[7]This fosters creativity and might lead to unconventional but better solutions. For this structure to work, self-organized teams must have a high sense of ownership and responsibility. Also, they need to communicate more often and be able to put trust in the capabilities of every one of the team member.[10] In order to create a functioning self-organized team, managers can follow three core steps, which are training, coaching and mentoring. Training of hard-skills will ensure the required competencies and the team members confidence in them. This is the basis for autonomous work. Training of soft-skills will lay the groundwork for communication and collaboration. In the beginning phase, a coach should be present to offer guidance along the way but his role should diminish over time. As soon as the team is functioning, it will still need continuous mentoring to grow individual skills and keep the group balance.[10]


Pinks approach and his focus on intrinsic motivation in todays work environment is unarguably correct and important in the field of project management. Managers need to understand the underlying forms of motivation summarized in Figue 1 to manage and lead people effectively. However, Pinks views are in some parts one-sided. The representation of extrinsic motivation is sometimes too negative and falls short of the fact, that it is still needed for certain types of tasks. Even though a project can be born out of intrinsic motivation, it is utopias to believe that it can be delivered through intrinsic motivation alone. There are too many external parameters and standard procedures to consider. Project managers therefore have to identify the two different kinds of tasks and find an effective way to balance intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Figure 2 provides a guideline on how the decision process can be structured. Also, the baseline rewards need to be adequate and fair. These include wages, salaries, benefits and are important to set a basis for motivated contribution. According to Maslow, individuals will strive towards intrinsically motivated self-actualization when they find themselves in stable conditions that guarantee their well-being. The main take-away is that project managers have to create an atmosphere that values individual contribution and skills, allows a great deal of autonomy and promotes the value and importance of the project in a bigger context. Rewards should be unexpected, rather immaterial and value an individuals competence. In "Drive" Pink presents evidence to make a case against material rewards and encourages the movement towards a future based on intrinsic motivation. His picture of the future is as appealing and human as it can be, but will certainly still inhabit extrinsic motivators. Changes towards this future are being made, however slowly and one step at a time.

Annotated bibliography

  1. Daniel H. Pink, (2009), Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. - in particular Chapters 2a, 4, 5 and 6. In this book, the author argues that human motivation is largely intrinsic, and that the aspects of this motivation can be divided into autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
  2. Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, (2000), Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, published in Contemporary Educational Psychology 25 - In this paper, the authors summerize and refelct on the different forms of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
  3. Project Management Institute, Inc., (2017), Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition) - In particular chapter 9 on Project Resource Management. The Project Management Body of Knowledge is a set of standard terminology and guidelines for project management. Project Resource Management includes the processes of identifying, acquiring, and managing the resources needed for the successful completion of the project.


  1. [Daniel H. Pink, About, retrieved from https://www.danpink.com/about/]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 [Daniel H. Pink, 2009, Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us]
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 [Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, 2000, Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67]
  4. [Saul McLeod, 2018, Skinner - Operant Conditioning, retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html]
  5. [National Research Council, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, 1999, The Changing Nature of Work: Implications for Occupational Analysis, ]
  6. [Saul McLoed, 2018, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html ]
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 [Project Management Institute, Inc.., 2017, Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (6th Edition)]
  8. 8.0 8.1 [10,000ft Team, October 29th, 2013, Interview with Daniel Pink: the Evolving World of Work, retrieved from https://www.10000ft.com/blog/daniel-pink-and-the-changing-world-of-work]
  9. [Nils O.E. Olsson et al., 2008, Project ownership: implications on success measurement in, Measuring Business Excellence, Vol. 12 Issue:1, pp.39-46]
  10. 10.0 10.1 [Planview, 2019, What Is a Self-Organizing Team?, retrieved from https://www.planview.com/resources/articles/what-is-self-organizing-team/]
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