Publish at September 10 2018 Updated July 20 2022

Motivation: we've got it all wrong!

Daniel Pink's indispensable reminders of what motivates us

Bonuses or good grades... We reward actions that we want to encourage and foster. What if these rewards were the poison that gradually kills motivation? This is what researchers have been demonstrating regularly since the late 1940s, without managing to completely change our management practices. Daniel Fink, an American political writer and journalist, explains to us in a lively and erudite way "what really motivates us."

These principles are often presented in the context of the company and salaried work. It is up to us to imagine how to transfer them to the world of training and teaching! Daniel Fink's book is more a reminder of theories and landmark experiences, rather than a document that would reveal new elements to us. The reminder is nevertheless useful, so much so that it goes against our reflexes and common sense.

It all starts with an experiment conducted in 1949, which aimed to explore the cognitive abilities of rhesus macaques. The psychologist Harry Harlow had thought to familiarize the monkeys with the test material: mechanisms that open in several stages by trial and error or deduction. The rhesus monkeys played along and tried to solve the puzzles as they were presented. At no time did the scientist have to offer them treats to motivate them. Contrary to representations of the time, the monkeys did not work for rewards, but for the pleasure found in the activity!

Harry Harlow did not pursue these experiments and it was not until twenty years later that Edward Deci experimented with a similar situation with humans. People mobilize for the soma cube with no promise of reward. If they are paid, they continue. But when the reward is stopped, or if it seems very small, they become demotivated and their performance drops compared to the test group that never received a reward.

two historical experiments - Motivation - Deci - Harlow

Following Deci and Ryan, Daniel Pink  emphasizes the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. An extrinsic motivation is external to the activity. It is an element that is promised in case of success or involvement, but which is not linked to the task. It can be money, good points, pictures, grades...

Intrinsic motivation is related to the activity itself, the sense of efficacy, the social exchanges it involves, etc. It is also related to the value one attributes to the task. Daniel Pink reminds us of a Tom Sawyer adventure. When he is forced to paint a fence, he claims that the activity is particularly difficult and that no one can replace him. His friends beg him to let them try and finish the job for him.

intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

But intrinsic motivation is also very fragile. All it takes is for people to have been given extrinsic motivation to reduce it. Alfie KOHN talks about "punishment by reward"! Indeed, if you give a reward, you run the risk that it focuses attention to the detriment of the activity. For a creative activity, it blocks the participants. They may also stop the effort when they have reached the level needed to get the reward. Their interest seems to be related to repetitive, mindless tasks.

extrinsic motivations counterproductive, except for repetitive tasks

But beware, the authors cited are not advocating stopping paying employees. They just show that it is a mistake to believe that humans are reluctant to work and only do so against an expectation of gain. In a school environment, this belief leads to attempts to motivate through grades, not as a tracking element but as a sanction.

Theory X and Theory Y

After showing us the limits of extrinsic motivation with numerous studies and anecdotes, Daniel Pink gives us some pointers for fostering intrinsic motivation.

Daniel Pink reminds us that in 1957, a certain Mac Gregor had opposed Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X is the implicit theory of autocratic or technocratic management, which believes that individuals are naturally reluctant to work, that they need to be guided, controlled, timed, rewarded or threatened.

Theory X according to Mac Gregor

The Y theory is also an implicit theory that relies on an opposing view of the human. Employees may be interested in tasks, want to collaborate and even share in a company project. They are better if they are left to their own devices and not told what to do. An example? The CEO who ran 3M during the 1930s and 40s and whose quote is reproduced below.

"The mistakes that people will make are of much less importance than the mistake that management makes if it tells them exactly what to do."


Accepting error rather than drowning in instructions

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, well known in the world of play and education have provided some insights and principles that can guide us. They have put these together into a theory of self-determination (TAD). They distinguish three essential factors: autonomy, competence, and connectedness.

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose

Following Deci and Ryan, Pink proposes three dimensions that foster this intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.


The examples Daniel Pink gives are quite radical. In particular, he rejects the term "empowerment," which while speaking of autonomy perpetuates asymmetry. "It assumes that it is the company that holds the power and charitably pours a few ladles of it into the bowls of its grateful employees." Instead, he cites the company ... and its FedEx days, so called because employees are totally free for 24 hours, but must present something they have produced at the end. These FedEx days, organized once a quarter, led to more ambitious actions, where employees had more time to devote to what they wanted, provided they presented it regularly. Innovations at 3M like Google's often came out of these autonomous times.

Autonomy is about employees choosing what they do, when they do it, with whom, and how. The exact opposite of Theory X.


Daniel Pink refers to flow theory, popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The work is neither too simple nor too difficult. It brings goals that are sometimes like challenges or activities that carry meaning. Flow is well known to artists and gamers. It is the state that video games seek to produce, which makes us forget that time is passing and we should think about sleeping or eating!

The Purpose

It is related to shared values, to the meaning of the action. It explains how people will commit themselves for free and sometimes give a lot of their time, when they are convinced by a cause or want to fight an injustice. This is one of the main motivations for volunteers in associations.

These principles are familiar in pedagogy. More than grades or compliments, teachers try to give meaning to activities, foster relationships, mobilize several forms of intelligence, vary. They also try to find the "flow" or at least the "zone of proximal development," the one where the activity is difficult enough to be a challenge, and simple enough to do, with guidance.

They try to find the "flow" or at least the "zone of proximal development," the one where the activity is difficult enough to be a challenge, and simple enough to do, with guidance.

Illustrations: Frédéric Duriez


PINK Daniel H, The truth about what motivates us, trans. Marc Rozenbaum, Clés-Champs 2014

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