“Prove Dan Pink Is Wrong”

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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