Re-reading Dan Pink: Do his thoughts still hold up in 2019?


In the last couple of months, I’ve had some great discussions with HR professionals, consultants and senior managers around retaining talent and encouraging performance by tackling the reasons behind performance.

Issues around improving engagement, motivation, and how people feel about their company have reminded me of Dan Pink's book Drive.  The book also lent a lot of the methodology that underpins Motivii's feedback tools.

Published ten years ago, the thoughts Pink presented around encouraging managers to develop motivators for employees that were more personal to them. He said that there's much more to engagement than just fruit bowls & deadlines... People succeed because they intrinsically want to, and they don't succeed because they don't care.

Surely that kind of thing doesn't age? I revisited Drive to find out. 

Has Dan Pink helped improve engagement at work?

From my experience, we often make it too complicated to retain talent because we are focusing on things like higher salaries, benefits, bonuses and stock options etc. which quickly become hygiene factors and they don’t motivate employees in the long run to stay in the organisation.

Daniel Pink clarifies this in his book “Drive”; “there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. In our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm”.

In our work with helping our clients make work better we have learnt a very simple lesson; what people want most is being part of an environment where they can have a great relationship with their peers and get support from their manager to improve performance. This is usually more important than benefits and compensation.

As a manager you need to change your mindset and create an environment that naturally nurtures talent: you need to put the employee experience first, and not the shareholders' experience.

So Pink ticks that box... the rise of employee experience job roles since the book was published, as well as the rise in popularity of more flexible working arrangements is testament to that. 

Has Dan Pink improved how we manage people?

Dan Pink talks about three areas which you as a manager need to get right if you want to create an environment where people can perform and be highly engaged.

1) Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.

Is important that you let employees set their own goals; no one is motivated by being told what to do. Your job as the manager is then to support your employees, so they can achieve their goals fast. Your role is more and more changing to become the coach/mentor than the one who is managing every process and task.

2) Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters.

Often managers try to improve their employee’s performance by telling them what they need to change, but that does not work. To help people improve their performance you as a manager need to change their behaviours and beliefs. One of the most powerful ways to do this is to create a framework for reflection on a regular basis; because reflection is one of the most powerful tools employees can use to change their behaviours and beliefs.  

3) Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

I’m convinced that real engagement and genuine success does not come from finding yourself, but in losing yourself. Losing yourself in a company you can believe in, a cause that you are prepared to fight for, and a commitment to a problem that has defied a solution.

As a manager, it’s important that you as often as possible remind people why they're at work; like the restaurant chain Chipotle does. Their goal is to end factory farming and serve food with no nasties, and that message is regularly communicated and remains consistent with the company's actions and management style.

Dan ticks another three boxes... The world's most competitive companies to work, such as Google & WeWork, have excelled at creating these environments, with a range of self-directed development programmes, clear company lines on issues such as single-use plastics, and self-motivated people.

As a result, they have enviable company cultures, and a strong internal brand. The difference in the effectiveness of hiring & retention efforts between companies with a strong internal brand & those those without has never been bigger. 

Pink-tinted glasses

I started writing this blog with the expectation that Dan Pink had become a bit dated. I hadn't seen him quoted for a while, while his thoughts used to be everywhere online.But re-reading Drive made me realise that the stuff he was saying just seven years ago had contributed to how aspirational companies fundamentally manage their people. Instead of forgetting about Pink, his thoughts had just become part of how we see the world.

Pink hadn't disappeared, we'd just started to see everything with Pink-tinted glasses. And if you've got a team or organisation that isn't great at retaining people, pick up Pink & try again.

By Alan Wanders, Growth Manager at Motivii