In Learning

An excellent video from RSA Animate illustrating a Dan Pink’s talk, which is very popular within the Agile community.

As soon as we had watched it again, the Editor of the Emergn Value, Flow, Quality Research team declared our challenge ‘Prove that Dan Pink is wrong!’

‘Wrong? Why? Surely he is proving that common views on motivation are wrong?’ We asked.

Well the Editor insisted. Critical thinking means challenging everything, getting deep understanding. If we are to write great work on motivation, we must challenge every view.

At the heart of Dan Pink’s work is three drives that he promotes as the surprising truth about what motivates us. Autonomy, Mastery & Purpose.

We genuinely think that Dan Pink’s work is great, but his book seems to view motivation from the angle of an individual. We wondered if viewing that individual as part of a team/or a social group might change our motivation. And we think it does. We found an excelent blog from 3 Sigma deeply challenging Dan Pink in a blog called ‘Dan Pink Gets A Little Bit Right’. This blog goes on to challenge the individual viewpoint taken by Dan Pink, and accuses him of coming up with a reductive theoretical foundation. We may be about to do the same.

So we propose three new words to capture the surprising truth of what motivates us.


‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’

Autonomy as a word drives thoughts of freedom, and self. But people are social beings. We have complex social structures that we depend upon. Whilst individual identity and autonomy is important, we are willing to often subjugate our autonomy for other things we find valuable. We do this with marriage (so I tell my wife), kids, family, work, and government. Of course autonomy is still a key factor but we would argue that being social is a key motivation. We are driven more by our interaction with other social groups, than a drive for autonomy.


This may be the most semantic of our differences. Purpose as a word drives thoughts of an outcome, a desired result. The word means ‘full of significance’. It better captured our desire to have a full and meaningful life, both the journey and the outcome. Additionally, the word purpose is used in many contexts. For example, your company may have a purpose. We believe that people find meaning in other’s people’s and organisations purposes and if they find meaning, they are often prepared to work on a shared purpose (in line with our social word).


The last word mastery assumes expertise in a task, maybe learned over 10,000 hours. It is defintely true that some human beings excel in the art of mastery (Edison, Einstein), but interestingly usually in only one area. This may describe the unique focus that some people can have, sometimes in the strangest of activities (for example, the number of hot dogs you can eat in one minute). We like to look at this subject differently, instead of it being driven by solo pursuit of mastery, it is instead driven by social recognition of contribution. In fact, we might offer very little mastery (a mascot for a sport team), but if we feel we are the lucky charm, and recognised as such by the team on a winning streak, we think this is best called contribution.

Socially meaningful contribution

So the main challenge to Dan Pink’s work, is that it is a combination of socially driven meaning and social recognition of contribution that really drives motivation. We don’t disagree with the importance of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose but the three words we have picked best describe in our opinion the behaviours we often see that leads to high motivation. So maybe we did not prove Dan Pink wrong, but we hope to have illuminated the debate.

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Showing 11 comments
  • Richie

    Interesting article and bizarrely my wife showed me Dan’s speech at TED only yesterday.

    Taking your ‘Socially meaningful contribution’ statement I decided on trying to apply it to other situations, one close to my heart being basketball. Socially massive across the world from grass roots through to the NBA in the US it has it’s own culture, language and following. But, does a player have a social meaning to simply contribute to a game? Is that what got Michael Jordan out of his bed in the mornings, to contribute? Arguably he used to carry a team with his individual excellence by regularly scoring 40+ points in a game but it was also his brilliance in mastering all aspects of the game, reading defence, running plays, making mystifying passes, team defending which is more than a contribution. With the analogy of a mascot social recognition would be short lived if the team started to play poorly and even worse be turned in to an omen. With team players it seems that the social recognition is through the master of their abilities of what they can contribute which then makes good team great.
    Moving on from that, is there something else here for challenge? Not just in a team but also competing with ones self to improve? Is this not the way to become a master of something, not just repetitive actions but there being a meaning to it?
    Socially meaningful challenge?

    • Paul Dolman-Darrall

      There is no doubt that mastery can play a key role. However, it suggest that the value comes from mastering the task. We are suggesting the value comes from how mastering the task is socially recognised. Did Michael Jordan get the most enjoyment from being the best basketball player in the world, or from the social recognition he got for being the best basketball player in the world. We suggest it is the latter, even though its close distinction.

      Thus if it is based on social recognition, it may not require mastering the task to drive motivation. Of course in the mascot one, if the team loses, it may change how contribution is viewed, and of course if the contribution is large like Michael Jordan’s, that is likely to end up in higher social recognition.

      However, if we move away from superstars like Michael Jordan, we think contribution, and social recognition of that to be a more useful concept than mastery.

      We did consider competition, or challenge. There is no doubt that it can motivate, but again we feel the social recognition is the ultimate pay off. Would Michael Jordan have become such a great player, if nobody was watching?

      • Richie

        I would suggest that Michael Jordan got the most enjoyment from what you’ve termed as Meaning – the journey and the outcome of an activity – at least in the initial space. Social recognition came later after mastering the sport.

        • Paul Dolman-Darrall

          Even there, I might challenge. Social recognition initially came from playing with his friends. Why did he choose Basketball in the first place?

      • jc46202

        THe reality is you apparently don’t know which drove Michael Jordan.  In his case, and in the case of other superstar athletes, performers, artists, and the like, I’d suggest that they hold such high standards for themselves that popular social approval would actually be less important and that any power of social roof would be prescribed to individuals(s) they feel understand the true level of performance their talents should be challenged to achieve.

        • ValueFlowQuality

          Again, I feel you missed the point. Michael Jordan did not form part of our research. However my point is not that social means the adoration of fans, but that it starts much smaller with friends and family.

          You assumptions that they hold such high standards means they need no social approval. Why did he pick up a basketball in the first place?

  • Bob Marshall

    You might find some further grist in Positive Psychology, in particular Martin Seligman’s PERMA – see eg

    – Bob

  • Paul Boos

    Beautiful!  I love Dan Pink’s work! But you have expanded it with more relevant meaning to teams… Bravo!

  • jc46202

    You’ve created a false strawman with autonomy and social as if they are opposites of each other.  Autonomy equates to freedom, the freedom to work along, to work with others.  And who is this universal “we” who prefers social over autonomy.  Until you’ve got studies that back up that assertion, you’ve offered your own opinion not proof that Pink’s work (and the research he cites) is wrong.  

    • ValueFlowQuality

      Maybe you have slightly missed the point. Whilst Dan Pink provides lot of evidence that rewards don’t work, he actually provides little evidence that autonomy, mastery and purpose work.

      This led to the accusation that he has produced a reductive theoretical foundation. In providing our three words, I clearly pointed out that we intended to do the same thing.Our challenge is not the specific use of the words autonomy and social, nor necessarily that they are the opposite of each other.

      Our main challenge is that Dan Pink seems to rely on a very individual view of the world, as opposed to our view that the world is driven by the social.

      Now in this blog, I have not gone into the full research behind our views. Like Dan Pink, we have relied on the research of others, to make our assertion. The same as he has.

      So I accept it may be a false strawman, but so is Dan Pink’s. That doesn’t however get rid of it as interesting work. We will be when publishing some of our work, show our full research – in the mean time, we intended this to be a light hearted blog.

  • Chrissie Auton

    Excellent animation and a lesson for companies everywhere all ! 

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