Interviewing Dan Pink: The Updated Truth About What Motivates Us
This man worked in a real job like many of us grownups do every single weekday. He went to the office, wore fancy clothes, had a boss, did the things expected of him, and finally received a paycheck. But after suffering many frustrations, this man, just like ourselves, couldn’t stand it anymore.
This man wasn’t just anybody. This man was bestselling author and Bucket List pioneer Dan Pink. Last year, during the Thinkers50 awards gala in London, we met up with him to discuss his work—and our common frustrations.
Like ourselves, frustrations emerged for Dan when he had a boss. He used to work in the White House as chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore. Don’t get us wrong. Dan didn’t dislike Gore. In fact, it was the reverse. He just hated having a boss in the first place.
After working in politics for nearly 10 years, Dan started to ask himself: “Why am I still doing this crap?” Clearly, he wanted more autonomy, which turns out to be his biggest personal driver. He didn’t want somebody assigning him tasks any more. He wanted to decide for himself what to do. And he didn’t want fixed working hours, at an office. He wanted to decide, for himself, when and where to work.
So, in 1997, Dan quit his job (again, like ourselves). He left the White House to go out on his own. He travelled around the US searching for people who worked for themselves—with full autonomy. He interviewed all kinds of freelancers and small business owners trying to find out what it was, exactly, that they were after.
This led Dan to write his first book, Free Agent Nation. He concluded: “Most people seek a sense of autonomy in their work, and a sense of authenticity. They are seeking to do their own thing their own way.”
That’s a nice statement. But what does autonomy look like in a corporate environment? Good question! Because, that’s exactly what we have been researching in the firms on our Bucket List that are performing well and offering (among other things) lots of autonomy.
Believe it or not, there are enough workplaces like this—that provide employees with so much freedom—that they’ve run successfully for decades without a single boss. To show how that can be achieved, almost anywhere, let us introduce you to four examples of ‘boss-less’ organizations from different industries and cultures.
Buurtzorg is a Dutch healthcare organization with 12.000+ professionals who work in self-managing teams. They deliver quality healthcare services every single day. Established only 10 years ago, Buurtzorg has revolutionized community care in the Netherlands. Moreover, they report impressive financial savings, along with excellent client and staff satisfaction. There is not a manager to be found in the organization.
Founded in 1999, Vagas is Brazil’s market leader in e-recruitment. Their website receives half a million visitors each day. Their 150+ employees work in ~30 self-managing teams to serve 3000+ clients. Once again, there is no manager to be found there.
Centigo AB is a large management consulting firm based in Sweden. Founded in 2002, they have nearly 500 employees and are frequently named as one of Sweden’s best employers. Employees have complete freedom to decide for themselves which tasks to undertake, and how to do them. Once again, it’s a company without managers.
Morning Star is a California-based tomato paste producer founded in 1970. Its 400+ employees make a lot of tomato paste, generating hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue each year. Just as in the previous examples, Morning Star has run for decades without bosses.
Let’s turn back to our conversation with Dan. Autonomy isn’t only vital at ‘boss-less’ companies, it also became a core factor in Dan’s famous Motivation 3.0 concept. Dan introduced this in 2009 in his fourth non-fiction book called Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us.
In Drive, Dan lays out the evolution of motivational factors that drive us as human beings. He argues against the old models that were driven by rewards and fear of punishment; models dominated by extrinsic factors.
Instead, he argues that human motivation is largely intrinsic, and can be divided into three categories;
- Autonomy – the desire to be self-directed
- Purpose – the desire to do something that has meaning
- Mastery – the urge to get better skills
In Drive, Dan claims that 21st century people aren’t only working for personal gain. They also want to make the world a bit better. In Motivation 3.0, this is represented as Purpose, prioritizing purpose maximization over profit maximization.
In the book Dan writes about Purpose, with a capital ‘P’, by focusing on the question “Am I making a difference in the world?”. According to Dan, we should distinguish the process of work from the purpose of work. Because when we are too focused on process, we look at our work as through a microscope.
We should rather look at work with a wider view, and be able to see our contribution in a broader perspective. Then, the moment we take a step back from our daily routine, we can reconnect with the reasons we chose to do what we do in the first place.
During the interview, we asked Dan how his views have changed since he wrote the book in 2009. On reflection, Dan realizes this section of his book “isn’t quite right anymore”. He now says he should have made a distinction between, on the one hand, Purpose (with a capital ‘P’) and purpose (with a small ‘p’).
Purpose (with a small ‘p’) represents the motivation from being able to positively answer questions like “Am I making a contribution on a day-to-day basis?” and “If I didn’t show up at work, would anybody know?”
As a result, his revised Motivation 3.0 concept should also include purpose as a representation of any progress we make, whether big or small. The combination of having a Purpose (with a big ‘P’) and purpose (with a small ‘p’) should motivate us all.
Finally, Dan advocates firms should offer employees opportunities to develop themselves as they strive for ‘mastery’. Therefore, ‘boss-less’ companies offer employees the freedom to craft their jobs with tasks that are neither too easy nor too hard.
The freedom to shape your own work is called job-crafting. Job-crafting is about regularly adding, removing or revising the tasks and actions in your daily work. It’s about constantly redesigning what you’re actually doing at work, tailored to your strengths, values and interests. Thus, employees become architects of their own work. They become motivated to push themselves to become their best selves.
“And when you want to increase your impact, then think small.” Just as when you start running, you don’t start with a marathon. You start by running shorter distances. So, next time you are stuck at work, ask yourself: “What one small thing you can I do to keep moving, and do it. Then wake up the next morning and again do one small thing to keep achieving progress.”
And this is not just advice based on academic studies. The strong focus on autonomy, mastery, and Purpose/purpose is something we've seen in a huge amount of the progressive workplaces we've studied Grounded in research, proven in practice.