A Conversation with Daniel Pink

A Conversation with Daniel Pink @DanielPink 
Interview by Joe Ferraro @FerraroOnAir

©Rebecca Emily DrobisAll Rights Reserved

Author Daniel Pink
©Rebecca Emily Drobis All Rights Reserved Author Daniel Pink

Audio here

Joe: He’s written A Whole New Mind, To Sell is Human and Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and today he is helping us get one percent better. Let me welcome in Dan Pink, Dan.

Dan: Joe. Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Joe: Thanks for taking the time out. Our missions seemed to align and I’m a big admirer of your work. So thanks again.
Dan: Okay, thanks.

Joe: When I look back to your work on Drive, there’s a question that jumps out at me and it’s remarkably aligned with the mission that I’ve taken on, which is simple but profound: it’s was I better today than I was yesterday? And that’s something you talk quite a bit about. I wonder, is that still something that resonates with you today in your practice?

Dan: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean, the genesis of that is that when you look at some of the research . . . when you look at the 50 years of research done in behavioral science on what motivates people, one of the core motivators that we have is something that I like to call mastery, which is getting better at something that matters. In fact, Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School has some really great research showing that the single biggest day to day motivator on the job is making progress in meaningful work. And so one of the challenges in making progress no matter where we work or how we work, is getting feedback on how we’re doing. And you know I think inside of larger organizations the feedback mechanisms are broken. And so for individuals I think they have to come up with their own kind of mechanisms, and one of the things I find useful in my own work is asking that question: and I like to say was I a little better today than I was yesterday?

Joe: Amen.

Dan: Because a lot of progress is incremental.

Joe: Yeah. I’ve read recently not to confuse progress with speed.

Dan: Great point. I mean that’s a subject . . . that’s something all together different. Don’t confuse progress with speed. Don’t confuse activity with action. There are a lot of people moving around frantically engaging a lot of activity who actually aren’t doing anything.

Joe: No doubt about it. And and I love that you said just a little bit better because again one percent makes it so attainable. That was the idea–the law of marginal gains that I fell in love with, to just make it something where you can reasonably say even if you get off to a bad start that there’s progress that is possible.

Dan: The other thing–to try and take one more bite at this apple here–is that if I ask myself that question: “was a little better today than I was yesterday? Many times the answer is no. Okay? And that’s actually in some ways the most galvanizing answer, because it’s kind of a waste. Right? I am very frustrated and disappointed in myself when they answer is no, because I think to myself, “Come on! You know you’re not going to be on this planet forever. You’ve got all these great opportunities . . . you’re lucky to be here. You can do better man!” And a lot of times after the no I come back with a string of yesses.

Joe: Interesting. So then what do you usually find is the most current or the most frequent lever that pulls it from from a no to a yes?

Dan: Disappointment and frustration.

Joe: Really?

Dan: Yeah absolutely. I don’t think that it universal, I’m talking about my own about my own experience as one dude working in Washington D.C.

Joe: Yeah sure. And then when you when you feel frustrated, when you feel disappointment, what what simplistic or direct behaviors do you implement to make sure that tomorrow is a yes?

Dan: Well what I say is “you can do better than this.” You know? Because I can. Like if I put in the day where I don’t get a lot of work done or don’t do good work. That’s not good enough. You know? I can do better than that. And so I mean it’s a form, I guess, of self coaching. Whereas a great coach or a great teacher will be supportive but he or she will also say to a student or to an athlete, “you know what? You could play that game better. You are not playing your best. You know what? On the paper that you wrote for me. You’re you were phoning it in. You could have done a lot better than that.”

Joe: So in the first part of that you seemed to be talking about intrinsic motivation, which you certainly have, but then you go a little bit further and kind of suggest that coaching can begin to motivate someone. We’ve often heard that that idea that it’s hard to motivate another person. Do you buy that?

Dan: Totally. In fact, I mean you know one of the guys quoted one of the research quoted in the book is a guy named Edward Deci, one of the great scholars of motivation. And he says–I hate to give you sort of black and white answer because the answer really is nuanced–but what Deci says is that motivation isn’t something that somebody does to another person, it’s something that people do for themselves. So coaches and teachers, for instance the examples that I just used, they’re basically giving you information to create the conditions for which for which you can motivate yourself. If you’re doing something only to please a teacher or a coach that’s actually a very controlled form of motivation. But if you have a coach or teacher saying “you know what? Think about this you can do better than that.” All right. And they’re not saying you must do better than that in order to make me happy. They’re saying you know in your heart that you can do better than that. And I think that that creates a context for self-motivation.

Joe: So in that situation you’re setting up the conditions where feedback as you mentioned earlier is critical, and it’s it’s not so much, it’s not at all that you’re motivating the person, you’re presenting them with truthful information it sounds like.

Dan: Great, yeah. Perfectly said, yes. So there’s nuance here. And so you know so one of the things to understand I think about motivation in some of these border principles particularly when we think about something like autonomy. . . the real problem in a lot of misguided motivational systems is control. Okay? Human beings have only two responses to control. They comply or they defy. So if I’m a coach and I’m trying to control your behavior by sending things up so that the only thing driving your behavior is pleasing me, that’s a form of control, that is not an enduring solution. But if I’m a coach and I set up mechanisms and an environment and a context and as you say Joe, information that allows someone to see their performance in a different context and get information on how they’re doing and use that to motivate themselves, then that’s the best kind of coaching that there is.

Joe: It almost sounds like you’re hinting at that moment where when a coach or teacher, or a leader is “tough on someone” you often see the athlete or the performer react very favorably. As long as they know that there’s trust. Does that make sense?
Dan: Yeah . . . yeah . . . yeah. I think that toughness is relative, and I think that different people have different tolerance for toughness. So what’s tough to person A, is not going to be tough to person B. But yeah, I think that you know said the key word there which is truthfulness. That’s the key.

Joe: I also wanted to ask you about your 2009 Ted talk. Clicking in it at 18.4 million views. People seem to get something out of it to put it lightly, Dan. In that TED talk though, you make the case, from Oxford, that there’s a disconnect between what science knows about motivation and what business does, and maybe more to the point as well, education. And you know things like that. Eight years later how are we doing?

Dan: A little better. But not that much better. You know the key point to keep in mind here on this is that you know again it’s like we were talking about before, there’s some nuance. People always want things to be simple black and white, and the fact of the matter is that life is more complex nuanced and gray. And so the key takeaway from all of this motivation research is this: there’s a certain kind of reward we use in organizations- I call it an “if then” reward, if you do this then you get that. Research shows pretty clearly that “if then” rewards are reasonably effective for a simple short term work but they’re not very effective at all for more complex long-term work. And so what’s happening is that any organization is a mix of some simple and short-term and some complex and long-term. And so “if then” rewards work for one category but they don’t work at all for the category. I think the challenge is, and the science is very clear on that, where people where organizations especially run aground is that they use these rewards for everything rather than for that one category where they actually where they actually work. And so I do think that there remains this disconnect. But I think the disconnect is ever so slowly closing.

Joe: Well what would that kind of work calls for then is a leader who can be very dynamic, because they need to be able to go back and forth between what type of motivation, what type of environment to set up and as well as individualizing it for each performer.

Dan: Yeah, absolutely right. Exactly. So that’s one of the other thing about these certain kinds of external “if then” motivators is that they’re pretty easy. Whereas if you want to create the conditions that we were talking about before, how do you provide Joe information on how he is doing? How is it different from providing Dan information on how he’s doing? What level of autonomy does Joe need? What level of autonomy does Dan need? How do I spark Joe’s sense of purpose? How do I spark Dan’s? I mean that’s hard.

Joe: Oh it is. Exactly.

Dan: Yeah. And I think that’s another reason why people resort to these more, you know, simplistic off-the-shelf solutions.

Joe: You know you took the words out of my mouth. I was going to say it’s incredibly easy to be mediocre at that. And it’s just incredibly challenging to continue to strive, to optimize, and to kind of find the best solution. I can’t recommend that Ted talk enough . . in that TED talk you talk almost exclusively about autonomy. In just our closing minute here I’d love you to just touch on purpose. That’s the one that kind of, seems most difficult; it’s tied in with meaning. What can you say briefly? It’s autonomy, mastery, and purpose. But how would you underline purpose and its role in that in the process of motivation?

Dan: Yeah. I’ve sort of changed my view on this in recent years. Again, it’s become slightly more nuanced. I actually think there are two kinds of purpose as motivators. I like to think of them (I really couldn’t think of anything better) as “capital P, Purpose and small p purpose. Capital P purpose and small p purpose. Capital P purpose is you’re doing something big, transcendent world changing. So you know, “in my job I’m helping to end U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, I’m feeding the hungry,” something big and transcendent like that. And there are organizations and companies that, you know, have that embedded in their mission and research shows that’s a very effective form of motivation. The trouble is that most of us can’t access that kind of motivation every day. So this is where the second kind of purpose comes in. Which is small p purpose and that’s basically am I making a contribution? Am I doing something that makes someone’s life a little bit better? If I didn’t show up to work today would anybody actually care or would something not get done? And so and so that’s how you can think about purposes. Capital P is “am I making a difference? The small p is “am I making a contribution?” And both are enormously important. And on that, to your kind of framework with “One Percent Better” one of the tools for that (I don’t think it’s even in the book because I come up with later on), but it’s been really effective for myself as well is what I tell people, is that every week have two fewer conversations about “how” and two more “why.” So if your boss or teacher, you know, bosses and teachers have a lot of “how” conversations. Here’s how you make a sales call. Here’s how you do that presentation. But we give short shrift to “why.” And there is this rich body of evidence showing that it’s a very effective and very inexpensive performance enhancer. And so you know I think for teachers you know the teachers like to tell kids how to do a quadratic equation and when kids ask “why are we doing this?” They say “be quiet and do your quadratic equation. You know again it’s actually a good question, ‘why are we doing this?’” And so one of the things that I like to do with people that I work with even myself is again it’s one of those I think really like low weight no cost, one percent better solutions, stop myself during two how conversations and turn them into why conversations.

Joe: Yeah that’s a new idea for me. I love that. He’s @ @DanielPink on Twitter, a must follow. And you can find everything Dan Pink at http://www.danpink.com/ Dan, it’s hard for me to to to talk to you and say I didn’t get one percent better today, I thank you.

Dan: Thanks a lot Joe! I appreciate that.

Joe: He’s Dan Pink. He’s making us one percent better. Taking some time out of his day. His books are a must read. Go ahead and get Drive, A Whole New Mind and To Sell is Human. We thank Dan for joining us today.

Dan: My pleasure.

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