Pink Drives Indies to a Greater Understanding of Motivation

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Daniel Pink's new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead), offers an intriguing and cogent look at what research reveals about our misconceptions regarding what best motivates us as individuals and organizations. And in his keynote address on February 5 at the ABA Winter Institute in San Jose, California, he gave a captivating, funny, and insightful overview of how the book's insights might help indie booksellers.

At the end of his approximately 90-minute presentation, Pink's message had clearly motivated the approximately 500 booksellers at the lunch-time event. Jonah Zimiles, of Words in Maplewood, New Jersey, spoke for many of those interviewed when he said, "It was worth coming to California just to hear Dan Pink."

Pink's central premise is that many of the current business tools for motivation are based on an outmoded understanding of what will achieve lasting results in performance and satisfaction. In a graphic demonstration of basic human needs rooted in survival and desire, which, he acknowledged, can be powerful motivational triggers, Pink asked the packed hotel ballroom for a show of hands of how many had "slept, eaten, or had sex" in the last 24 hours. But he also stressed that "we also do things because we like them, because they are interesting, [and because] they make the world better," and he noted that "running an independent bookstore is not something you do if you are interested just in mating or making a lot of money."

Pink noted that a more fulsome understanding of the realities of human makeup and social interaction recognizes that a business operating system resting solely on external reward and punishment motivations is shortsighted and often harmful.

There is, he said, "a giant body of science that calls into question" the belief that effective motivation is simply "getting right ... the carrot and the stick approach" to management. While this top-down, systematic style might work when faced with a straightforward problem whose remedy requires one "to follow a certain set of algometric rules to a certain conclusion," Pink noted, "for creative, conceptual work, you have to be more open and creative." In the end, he said, "once you pay people enough to take [the issue of] money off the table," simply "giving people more money, or a shorter deadline, or more pressure won't work very well with creative work."

Instead, he said, a conclusive body of research revealed that a new -- and more effective -- business operating system would contain three essential elements: autonomy, the desire to direct one's own life; mastery, the drive to gain better abilities at something that matters; and purpose, the determination to do something in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Regarding autonomy, Pink noted succinctly that "self-direction leads to engagement," a fact borne out both in research and the bottom line. As an example, he described the unconventional hiring practices of Zappos, the online shoe retailer, which eschews highly scripted instructions for call center customer service reps and simply instructs their employees "to solve the problem."

One result of this management decision, Pink said, is that "Zappos has customer call center ratings that rival the Four Seasons" hotel, this for a job that usually averages greater than 100 percent turnover. (Pink asked a bookseller in the audience who had identified herself as a former call center employee to describe her job experience. Her one-word reply: "Hell.")

Helping employees gain greater mastery of their jobs taps into "enjoyment-based, intrinsic motivation," said Pink, who noted that "how creative a person feels when working on a project is the strongest and most pervasive driver" of job performance. As a customer of Washington, D.C.'s Politics and Prose Bookstore and Coffeehouse, Pink said he often witnessed firsthand "the virtuosic performance" of the store's booksellers in the children's section, a demonstration of mastery that book buyers find both unique and valuable.

As businesses such as Tom's shoes -- which donates a pair of shoes to children in need for every pair purchased -- continue to "scramble the categories out there" between charities and businesses, Pink noted that it becomes ever more apparent that "people want to be part of something larger than themselves," both as customers and employees.

Tailoring some of the main insights of Drive to the world of indie bookselling, Pink offered a few suggestions. Pointing to Google's practice of "20 percent time," an exercise in autonomy that allows the company's engineers one day a week to focus on projects that are not necessarily in their job descriptions, Pink proposed "a more modest version of it [for bookstores] -- think of it as 10 percent time."

Giving employees "one afternoon per week" to work on a project could offer great value to bookstores, especially, Pink said, if the goal is not simply "to incrementally do something better than you are doing it now." Citing the Genius Bars at Apple's retail stores as a successful example of the power of mastery, Pink said, "I think there is a Genius Bar analogy in independent bookstores," and noted that "you do this already... I'm just saying bring it to a new level."

Pink ended his talk with a Q&A session, the highlight of which was his personal take on his five essential business books:


  • Michael Lewis' Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (Norton);
  • Pietra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets (Wiley);
  • Chip Heath and Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House);
  • Steven Pressfield's The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (Grand Central Publishing); and
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial).

--Dan Cullen