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What are the elements of motivation?

Motivation / September 4, 2017

Daniel Pink is a modern writer on business & management, with a strong focus on the changing nature of work and the workplace. His book - Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us - was published in 2009 and very quickly became a bestseller with its focus on the importance and effectiveness of three intrinsic elements to motivation at work: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Pink argues that the evidence of scientific studies on motivation and rewards suggests that, for any work task that involves most than the most basic cognitive challenge, basic financial reward systems simply do not work. In fact, they can lead to worse performance.

For simple, straightforward tasks, Pink concedes that traditional financial rewards or a carrot & stick approach to motivation DO work. These can be considered as "external" methods of motivation. They are simple and they still work.

He accepts that money is a motivator at work, but once people perceive that they are paid fairly, then they become much more motivated by intrinsic elements. Once people are paid fairly, they look for more from their work.

A summary of Pink's key points on the three intrinsic elements of motivation is provided below.

Pink: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us


According to Pink, autonomy is the desire to direct our own lives. Pink argues that allowing employees autonomy runs counter to the traditional view of management which wants employees to "comply" with what is required of them.

However, if managers want employees to be more engaged in what they are doing (and they should - as tasks become more complicated) then allowing employees autonomy (self-direction is better).

Pink provides some examples of what he means by autonomy, summarising them into four main aspects: time, technique, team and task

For example, some firms allow employees to have time at the workplace to do whatever they want. This freedom to spend time doing their own thing leads to many more innovative ideas and solutions. A good example is Google which has benefited from numerous product ideas as a result of allowing developers to pursue individual projects during work time.

The growth of flexible working practices is another good example of allowing staff more autonomy. For example, providing the technology and freedom to work from home.

Pink is an advocate of greater use of teamwork as a means of facilitating autonomy, particularly where the team members themselves pick the team!


Pink describes mastery as the desire to continually improve at something that matters.

Pink argues that humans love to "get better at stuff" - they enjoy the satisfaction from personal achievement and progress. Allowing employees to enjoy a sense of progress at work contributes to their inner drive.

By contrast, a lack of opportunity at work for self-improvement or personal and professional development is liable to make employees more bored and demotivated

A key implication for managers to is to set tasks for employees that are neither too easy or excessively challenging. Pink calls such tasks "Goldilocks tasks) - ie. tasks that are not "too hot or too cold".

Goldilocks tasks push employees out of their comfort zones, and allow them to stretch themselves and develop their skills and experience further.


Pink describes purpose as the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves. Pink argues that people intrinsically want to do things that matter.

For example, entrepreneurs are often intrinsically motivated to "make a difference" rather than simply aiming for profit maximisation.

Most of us spend more than half our working hours at work. We want that time to matter.

So a key part of adding purpose to work is to ensure that the mission and goals of the organisation are properly communicated to employees. Employees need to know and understand these, and appreciate how their work and role fits into what the organisation is about.

RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us