Daniel Pink Motivation Theory explained

Daniel Pink Motivation Theory - Toolshero

Daniel Pink Motivation Theory: this article provides a practical explanation of the Daniel Pink Motivation Theory. After reading this article, you’ll understand the basics of this powerful psychological theory.

What is the Daniel Pink Motivation Theory?

The Daniel Pink Motivation Theory is a concept from the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. The book, on the importance and effectiveness of three intrinsic elements for motivation, became a bestseller soon after its publication in 2009.

The three elements of intrinsic motivation are: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy here refers to the human desire to lead a life of one’s own. Mastery is the desire to improve something that matters and purpose is about the desire to serve something greater than man himself.

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As already stated in Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory, money or any other external motivator is not the most effective.

Edward Deci conducted an experiment in the 1970s that showed that people who were stimulated with money were less motivated to do puzzles than people who were not promised money. This revealed the significant difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

In the Daniel Pink Motivation Theory, David Pink argues that organisations and organisational leaders should adopt a new self-determination approach to motivation.

Organisations should focus on people’s drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected. They can do this by developing environments for employees in which they can direct their own lives, learn and do new things in order to contribute to the organisation and the world.

Daniel Pink Motivation Theory: Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation means that the behaviour of the person is motivated by an internal longing to do something. That can be about the most diverse subjects, such as the wish to go on holiday or to learn a new skill like playing the piano. Other examples of intrinsic motivation are exercising for stress relief or cleaning to be organised.

Extrinsic motivation means that a person’s behaviour is motivated by an external factor that drives someone to do something in the hope of receiving a reward or to avoid a less positive outcome. Examples are:

  • Reading a text book to prepare for a test
  • Training to lose weight
  • Going the extra mile to get the sales bonus

Factors affecting motivation according to Daniel Pink

The terms autonomy, mastery and purpose in the context of motivation are explained below.

Daniel Pink Motivation Theory is all about autonomy

Daniel Pink explains autonomy as the desire to lead your own life. This is present in everyone: children play and discover things independently at a very young age. He argues that assigning autonomy to employees is effective, but is contrary to the traditional vision of management.

In this, employees are expected to comply with what they are asked to do. According to Daniel Pink, giving employees autonomy ensures that they are more involved in what they do. This concerns the following four factors: time, technique, team and task.

Different organisations give their employees more time at work to do what they want to do. This freedom has shown to lead to much more innovative ideas and solutions at Google. Another good example of autonomy is the growth of flexible working, from home for example. By offering such technology and freedoms to employees, they experience a stronger sense of autonomy.

1. Mastery

The second intrinsic element of motivation is wanting to improve. This can be frustrating for people just starting to learn an instrument or a new language. If people feel they are not moving forward or are not improving, then interest falls and people give up more quickly. A sense of progress, both professionally and personally, enhances people’s inner drive.

Pink suggests that organisations and leaders should look at calibrating what people must do and what they can do. If the must-do tasks are too difficult, employees will start to worry and feel outside of their comfort zone. If the must-do tasks are too easy, employees will be bored. The trick, according to Pink, is to suggest tasks that suit the person’s capacity, but also to give them space and support to promote improvement and growth.

2. Purpose

Employees who find purpose in the work they do unlock the highest level of motivational potential. Daniel Pink says that joining a cause that is “bigger” than yourself drives the deepest motivation possible. Purpose in this context means waking up in the morning and going to work without grumbling.

It also means that people with purpose are motivated to tackle even the most complex problems. Elizabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School, formulated her own motivational factors. One of them is, people can be inspired to achieve strict goals and take on impossible challenges if they care about results.

Daniel Pink Motivation Theory and outdated motivational beliefs

To really understand the purpose of Daniel Pink’s framework, two outdated beliefs relating to motivation are discussed below. The so-called “carrot and stick” method is widely used, but has many shortcomings.

1. Rewards

If a person is rewarded for certain behaviours, then that person will be motivated in the future to behave that way in the future. This is the carrot part of the analogy. An example of this is a parent urging his or her child to do something by promising the child a treat or other reward.

2. Punishment

The second belief is that when behaviour is punished, people are less likely to behave in the same way. This is the stick part of the carrot and stick analogy.

While the carrot and stick mentality can work well in certain situations, using it in the workplace has major drawbacks. Various studies have shown that financial incentives do not always improve employee performance. In most cases, offering financial rewards actually leads to less productivity.

Daniel Pink argues that there is a discrepancy between what businesses do and what science knows. Science argues that for tasks like assembling simple parts, a reward-based system works well.

Most of the jobs in the corporate world involve creative and conceptual thinking. Rewards kill this creativity precisely because employees become focused on the financial goal. The modern employee needs other motivators: autonomy, purpose and mastery. These things are also known as employee empowerment: giving employees empowerment and independence.

Daniel Pink Motivation Theory is also about empowering employees

Employee empowerment is defined as the degree to which organisations provide their employees with a degree of control and autonomy in their day-to-day work. This can take different forms in the workplace. Think of running smaller departments without the supervision of higher management, participating in the development of new systems and working methods and having a voice in general.

An important principle of employee empowerment is to provide the employees with the right resources necessary to make important decisions and ensure that the right decisions are made. When applied properly, it results in higher productivity and a better quality of the work delivered by the employees.

What exactly is employee empowerment?

In concrete terms, employee empowerment is about the concepts of task augmentation and task enrichment. Job augmentation differs from job enrichment in that job augmentation is horizontal expansion of tasks, and job enrichment is considered vertical.

Employee empowerment often requires training or education. In addition, it is important that employees have access to new sources of information on which to base decisions. It also requires initiative and trust from the employee themselves to take on new tasks.

As a result of empowerment, it can be that managers have to assume new roles, knowledge and responsibilities. This doesn’t mean that management takes a step back.

Empowering employees requires a significant investment of time and effort, especially on the part of management, to develop mutual trust with the employees, to balance the capabilities of the employees with their function and to come to clear agreements about roles, responsibilities and risks.

Task augmentation

Task augmentation is adjusting the scope of the job to allow the employee to take on a larger part of the horizontal process. An example of this is a bank employee who not only sells mortgages, but also deposit certificates.

Task enrichment

Task enrichment is the depth of the job that is increased by adding responsibilities to the job. These responsibilities were previously at higher levels of the organisation. An example of this is an electronics store cashier who also has the authority to assist a customer in completing a loan application and assessing it.

Daniel Pink Motivation Theory tips for increased motivation among employees

Below are some general tips to boost employee motivation. Remember that it is all about the big picture. Ensuring that one or more of the points below are met is not sufficient and certainly does not guarantee that the motivation among employees will increase.

1. Actively ask for input

Regularly assess employee satisfaction. This shows that you care about their opinions and appreciate their input. In addition, regularly ask for suggestions on the ways in which they work. It’s important to actually do something with this input.

2. Offer self-development opportunities

As part of the Daniel Pink Motivation Theory, ensuring that employees can develop is crucial for long-term motivation. In concrete terms, this could mean that you pay tuition fees or send employees to paid workshops or training courses.

3. Validate good work

Expressing appreciation through compliments or expressions of gratitude also has a major impact on employee motivation. It is no effort to name concrete things that employees have done to benefit the team and the organisation.

4. Set interim goals

Small and measurable goals are another valuable way to stay motivated while working on a long-term project. By helping the team to achieve reasonable and achievable goals, they remain motivated to achieve them.

5. Celebrate milestones and successes

In addition to the previous tip, it’s equally important to celebrate milestones and successes. This especially applies to longer term projects. Celebrating small successes can help the team stay connected and focused on the bigger goal.

6. Be positive

Creating a positive work culture is a very good way to keep employee motivation high. The simplest way is to do this yourself as leader. Make time for a joke, play a game after lunch occasionally and don’t be afraid to have fun.

7. Encourage mindfulness

Encourage employees to take breaks and relax regularly during the work day. Pay particular attention to what they indicate they want to do. Some will want to go for a walk, some want to go to the gym, and another might want to go and have a coffee at the café around the corner. Read more about Mindfulness

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Now it is your turn

What do you think? Do you recognise the explanation of the Daniel Pink Motivation Theory? What other theories and methods about motivation do you know? Do you think autonomy, mastery and purpose are important in the workplace? Is there evidence of empowering employees at your work place? Would you like more autonomy in your work? Do you have tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Azzam, A. M. (2014). Motivated to Learn: A Conversation with Daniel Pink. Educational Leadership, 72(1), 12-17.
  2. Fang, M., Gerhart, B., & Ledford Jr, G. E. (2013). Negative effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation: More smoke than fire. World at Work Quarterly, 16(2), 17-29.
  3. Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin.
  4. Maccoby, M. (2010). The 4 Rs of motivation. Research technology management, 53(4), 60.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2020). Daniel Pink Motivation Theory. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/psychology/daniel-pink-motivation-theory/

Original publication date: 11/19/2020 | Last update: 05/31/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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