Drive By Daniel Pink

It took me much longer to read this book than planned because I kept stopping to highlight and make notes in the margins. (Yes, I’m old fashioned and I actually still buy real books and write in them.) As I read, I kept thinking about how the principles covered by Daniel Pink absolutely applied to motivating staff in the call center.

The sub-title of the book Drive is The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and the basic premise of the book is indeed a bit surprising. His premise is that extrinsic motivation is really not all that successful for establishing behavior and pattern changes in the long run in the workplace. What matters more is intrinsic motivation, which Pink says comes from three factors: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Pink’s theory flies in the face of traditional practices in call centers where the management team is constantly looking for new types of rewards and programs to use to keep staff motivated. Whether it be gift cards, tokens, or small prizes, agents are constantly being given extrinsic rewards to encourage performance. The premise of the book is that these kinds of rewards can actually be de-motivating.  When staff are doing work that requires thinking and problem-solving, the work itself can be motivating enough.  When rewards are given, it suggests that the work must be dreadful and therefore rewards are needed to get through it successfully. Getting these rewards causes staff to rely upon them for motivation and intrinsic motivation having to do with the satisfaction of the work itself doesn’t happen.

The scope of today’s frontline tasks has changed.  With self-service taking care of the easy questions and transactions, the job of frontline agents is to handle calls that now require more thought, creativity, and problem-solving.  Pink doesn’t recommend a focus on concrete rewards and punishments for these types of jobs. He outlines three elements we must provide to workers in this category:

  • Autonomy — the desire to direct our own lives
  • Mastery — the urge to make progress and get better at something that matters
  • Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

On the other hand, Pink writes that if the work neither inspires deep passion or requires deep thinking (which may be true for many rote call center tasks), then rewards won’t hurt and might even help.  For these tasks, he suggests the following:

  1. Offer a rationale for why the task is necessary.
  2. Acknowledge that the task is boring.
  3. Allow people to complete the task their own way.

Only contingent rewards — if you do this, then you’ll get that — had the negative effect. It seems that “If-then” rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy which necessarily lessens intrinsic motivation.  If a reward is used, it should be unexpected and offered only after the task is complete as a bonus.  When the reward is used up front to motivate, it actually becomes de-motivating to do the work.

Pink points out that enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation is the strongest and most pervasive driver of performance.  The single greatest motivator is making progress in one’s work that is under their control.  By creating conditions for people to make progress and then recognizing and celebrating that progress, call center managers can get the performance they need from the staff while enriching their employees’ lives.

Pink writes that, “Management isn’t about walking around and seeing if people are in their offices. It’s about creating conditions for people to do their best work.”  This approach requires good hiring, trust, and some training — but the research shows that it yields much higher results and employee satisfaction. You literally cannot buy this kind of job performance and satisfaction through external motivators, Pink argues. External motivators work for left-brain routine tasks that are so uninteresting that a reward makes drudging through it worth it. But for work that requires critical thinking or creativity, rewards and bribes actually hinder performance. 

This book is a fantastic read for managers and supervisors.  It can generate discussion about how to create an environment that gives employees autonomy in their daily tasks, encourages mastery of the work, and helps them see a bigger purpose for the important work that they do.