Closing the Engagement Gap: A New Approach to Motivation

Posted in: PSA Partnership

Closing the Engagement Gap Image on PSA Insurance and Financial Services' website

Motivation: what fuels it? How can we foster it in employees? While the infamous Gordon Gekko might say money, and only money, New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink pored through countless studies spanning 50-plus years — and discovered it’s something far more intrinsic than a pay incentive or cash bonus. “Fact: Money is a motivator,” Pink argued, “but here’s what the research shows: You gotta pay people enough. Human beings are exquisitely attuned to the norm of fairness. You violate the norm of fairness, and you are toast.

“But once you pay people enough,” Pink continued, “holding out additional units of anything, particularly money, doesn’t have that much effect on performance,” especially for more complicated work that requires creativity. What matters more is how engaged people are with what they’re doing.

In a crowded room of more than 200 businesspeople gathered for an early morning PSA Partnership event, Pink led a fascinating discussion on the topic of motivation — and what makes some employees go above and beyond, while others scrape by, putting forth only the bare minimum. Kelly Kingman, a graphic recorder based in New York City, captured the essence of Pink’s talk in visual form on a whiteboard, and local entrepreneur Maury Weinstein shared how Pink’s practices enabled him to improve motivation and performance in his own company, System Source.

During the talk, Pink, who has written extensively on the 21st-century workplace, shared highlights from his 2009 bestseller, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. “Monetary rewards were great for 19th– and 20-century work, but not so great for the complex work of the 21st century,” and the higher cognitive skills it requires, he said. “Once you pay people so that they feel fairly compensated, holding out additional money doesn’t hold a lot of value for complicated processes and tasks.”

If not by money, how, then, can employers motivate their employees — and keep them engaged and excited about the work at hand, instead of distracted by things like promotions, office politics, or whose doing what menial (or interesting) tasks? According to Pink, motivation requires three ingredients: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Here is a look at what he means by each and how they play out in the modern workplace.


If you’re a manager, the word autonomy might conjure images of employees working on their own projects on their own timelines, without much oversight from you or any other member of management. If the thought of more autonomy scares you, then consider this history lesson from Pink: management is a product of industrialization, created in the 1850s for the singular purpose of getting people to do what you want them to do. Management, Pink explained, is essentially designed for achieving compliance.

Now consider Pink’s question: Do you want your workforce to be compliant or engaged? Quite likely, your answer depends on your line of work. If your workforce needs to assemble 2,000 tables following the specifications of a set of instructions, you probably want compliance, but “if they’re doing anything that requires judgment, thinking, or problem-solving, you want them engaged,” Pink explained.

So if the “technology” for compliance is management, what, then, is the “technology” for engagement? According to Pink, it’s self-direction. Many of us “are trying to manage people into engagement, and that doesn’t work,” Pink said. What does work?

In Drive, Pink advises giving people autonomy over four essential parts of their job: task (what projects you take on), time (when you do them), technique (how you tackle them), and team (with whom you work). For most organizations, this would involve a radical shift, but it’s starting to happen, for the most part incrementally, at companies big and small. The online retailer Zappos, for instance, eliminated job titles and managers, and created a far more agile, less hierarchical management system known as a Holacracy, while Netflix established an “unlimited vacation policy” that lets employees choose when and how long they’ll vacation, as long as they get their work done. Likewise, at a small credit union in Vancouver, customer service employees get to leave their phones (and offices) for an hour every week to think about a better way of working. The result? Great ideas started emerging, and productivity and engagement improving.


What does motivation have to do with mastery? As Pink explained it, “mastery is our desire to get better at stuff, and we like to get better at stuff because it’s inherently satisfying.” Why do we practice musical instruments and play sports? We do it because “it’s fun, it’s challenging, and we like to get better at stuff,” he said.

Pink’s ideas about mastery and motivation come from a book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Creativity, and Engagement at Work, by Harvard Business School professors Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer. Amabile and Kramer examined 12,000 daily dairy entries in which employees shared whether they felt motivated or not. The single biggest motivator, it turns out, is whether they were making progress in meaningful work. What does this mean? As Pink put it, “people like to see progress,” but most workplaces don’t make it easy to see. “Today’s workplaces are ‘feedback deprivation zones,’” he said, and “this is intolerable, especially to people under 35 who have grown up with instant feedback” (i.e., instant access to the world’s information via smartphone, ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ on their status updates, and when they play a game, they get a score).

How can companies improve their feedback loops? Pink said to “make feedback inside the organization more similar to the feedback outside of the organization,” whether through weekly one-on-ones with managers, DIY (Do It Yourself) performance reviews, and creating other ways to take the onus off managers — and do more to motivate employees to track and reflect on their own progress. For instance, software like iDoneThis, which Pink said he uses personally, makes it easy for team members to track and report on progress daily. “It gives you the feeling of progress and allows you to assess things in a more analytical way,” Pink said.


Just as important as autonomy and mastery is a sense of purpose. We all need to know our jobs mean something — and that our months toiling away at our computers served a greater good. Studies support this claim. As Pink discussed, when a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, Adam Grant, interviewed three groups of call center representatives at the University of Michigan making calls for a fundraising initiative, he found something revealing. Even though the reps worked from the same scripts, their outcomes varied significantly — and hinged on how they spent the five minutes before they started calling:

  • Group one, the control group, read a “neutral” newspaper article.
  • Group two read letters from former call reps about how the position helped them learn and prepare for a career.
  • Group three read letters from people who benefitted from the money raised through the calling efforts, such as the student who make a better life for herself though tuition assistance.

What happened? Not surprisingly, groups two and three outperformed group one, with group three earning twice the amount of weekly pledges and donations — an outcome the researchers attributed to the fact that they spent the first five minutes learning about why the job is important. “Too often, we focus on how, when we need to be asking why we’re doing it in the first place,” Pink explained. “Why does my piece matter? Why is it significant? People are yearning for this conversation, and there’s a huge body of research showing that it might be the most effective performance enhancer out there.”

When I think about Pink’s recommendations for a more productive, engaged workforce befitting of the 21st century, I see how much these three forces — autonomy, mastery, and purpose — work together to fuel motivation. Some of the studies about workplace engagement report dismal numbers, with a recent Gallop poll finding that the majority of Americans, particularly those highly educated and middle-aged, are not engaged in their jobs. Pink knows we can do better.

“We’re not designed to be passive and compliant,” he writes in Drive. “We’re designed to be active and engaged. And we know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice — doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the services of a cause larger than ourselves.”

How do you think we can motivate people in the workplace today? Let me know in the comments below.

Get the visual summary of Dan Pink’s thinking on motivation, as well as Maury Weinstein’s talk on how he put Pink’s concepts into practice at his own company. Then, find out more about the next PSA Partnership event.

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