Intrinsic Motivation in Lean Leadership: Unpacking Daniel Pink’s TED Talk on What Truly Drives Us


I have been a big fan of the author Daniel Pink since I heard about his most recent book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I saw him speak near Harvard back in January.

I loved the book, as it was reminiscent of Dr. W. Edwards Deming's ideas on employee motivation — how the best path to success comes through tapping into people's intrinsic motivation instead of trying to bribe them with rewards or financial incentives (“bribe” was the word that Dr. Deming often used). Not a flattering word, is it?

There is a video online of Dan Pink talking at the TED Conference (18 minutes) about his book and the important ideas within.

If you want people to perform better, you reward them – that's the American Way, Pink says. Let's step back and look at healthcare –   If incentives worked, then punishment would prevent medical mistakes and rewards could guarantee perfect patient care. Sounds too simplistic, right?

Pink, in the video, makes the “evidence-based case for rethinking how we run our businesses.” Citing various psychology research studies, Pink shares evidence that suggests that financial incentives actual HARM performance for anything requiring the least bit of cognitive skill. “Incentives dull thinking and block creativity.”

I think of conferences I've been to recently, whether I presented or not. I don't remember any of them having a prize or an extrinsic reward for “best presentation.” Why did we all volunteer our efforts and make attempts to do a good job? Things like pride, wanting to share with others — all good intrinsic motivations. I wonder if a prize would have led to lower-quality presentations?

These “contingent” (or “if-then” as in “if you do this, then I will pay you that”) incentives cause harm – it's the “most robust” social science finding and “one of the most ignored.” As Pink says:

What's alarming to Pink is that the prevailing “business operating system” is built on the wrong assumptions – the assumption that extrinsic motivation and rewards lead to BETTER performance in knowledge work settings. These incentives are harmful. As Pink says, “This is not a feeling” that they don't work – there's proof.

Pink and the research show that “if-then” rewards work great for purely mechanical tasks. But even most factory jobs aren't purely mechanical roles for people. Even factories are environments where thinking occurs (or should occur) by front-line employees.

If your task has “a clear set of rules and a single solution,” then if-then rewards might work. But again, that's not many tasks or jobs in this modern age. Rewards hurt performance — even with relatively HUGE rewards. It's not the size of the reward that matters…

It's a compelling video. “It this a socialist conspiracy?”, Pink asks jokingly. No, it's backed by research from economists from MIT, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics.

This idea that rewards can be harmful should all be familiar to people who are familiar with Dr. Deming or his protege Alfie Kohn, author of books like Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes — you can listen to my podcast with Kohn here.

What are the implications for Lean? We can't expect to entice people to implement Lean faster or more effectively with extrinsic and financial rewards. We have to tap into intrinsic motivation. In healthcare, we have the natural intrinsic motivation that it's a helping profession. If we can orient people around improving the system that lead to better patient care and quality outcomes, we have a fighting chance of making Lean work.

Secondly, can we expect to improve quality or safety through extrinsic rewards? Probably not! Remember Dr. Deming's story about the factory that offered a prize for zero injuries? What happened? People stopped reporting injuries! Another case where extrinsic incentives caused more dysfunction than true system improvement.

Pink says the three building blocks for intrinsic motivation are:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

In the video, he focuses on Autonomy (in the longer hour-long talk I saw, he talked about all three). Purpose is also a building block of the LEI approach to lean (“Purpose, Process, People.“). Purpose is critically important, especially in healthcare. Mastery comes from dedication to ones work – human development and continuous improvement.

Pink defines “autonomy” as “the urge to direct our own lives.” It might seem, on the surface, that autonomy runs counter to Lean concepts of “standardized work.”

The Lean concept is that standardized work should be defined and written by the people doing the work, not dictated by engineers, managers, or consultants. That sounds like autonomy to me. Standardized doesn't mean turning people into unthinking robots. Having standardized work forced on people violates the autonomy principle and leads to disengagement.

Autonomy, to me, means that you have direction over improvement in the workplace. As Toyota says, you have two jobs: 1) do the work (as you helped define it) and 2) improve the work. This sounds like autonomy to me (as opposed to being an automaton).

Pink suggests giving people a fair paycheck (taking money off the table) and then giving them autonomy (rather than paying a low wage with high incentives that are supposed to be “motivating.”) Sounds similar to what Dr. Deming preached.

One example of autonomy cited – the companies that give “20% time” for working on cool stuff – like Google. That doesn't mean Google employees have complete freedom 100% of the time. Autonomy leads to higher engagement, lower turnover, and better results.

How many nurses even get TWO PERCENT time to work on process improvement, yet alone anything close to 20%? How would healthcare be better if employees weren't viewed as direct labor to be motivated through incentives?

What are your thoughts about how this fits with Lean?

Again, I highly recommend the book: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

Here is the podcast that I did with Dan about the book:

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Mark;
    Very thought provoking post. In most cases a simple, courteous, genuine “thank you” goes a long way. The post kind of sparks the question of, “what value does lean have for us personally, in teams/groups, organizations and society?” I like “purpose” as contributing towards core values. Why do we do what we do? What is our purpose? I’m not sure rewards are a root cause solution for the elimination of frustration. Continuous improvement carries well beyond the work place into our homes and personal lives by reducing or eliminating that frustration, which may be taken home. Once it goes home it can lead to stress, health related issues, family issues and etc. Lean/CI provides a foundation through autonomy, purpose, and mastery for each person to engage, connect and influence improvements that benefit every area of our lives. A reward system can’t provide any of that.

  2. Two other essential ingredients for intrinsic motivation besides autonomy, mastery, and purpose not quite covered (unfortunately) by Dan in his book: (1) what Deci and Ryan call relatedness–the need for a feeling of belonging and connectedness to others (e.g., being part of a team that feels like a family); (2) a sense that one is making progress towards a goal (Dan did mention this in a post on his website). This can be a component of mastery, but personally, I think it merits separate mention (as does creativity expert Teresa Amabile).

    It also helps if the work is inherently interesting.

    Even in circumstances with “a clear set of rules and a single solution,” rewards can lead to “gaming” of results, concealing of problems, avoiding asking for needed help, energy wasted on excessive flattery of the “boss,” a focus on the reward rather than the customer, a need for bigger rewards, etc. And what happens to someone who doesn’t receive a reward despite best efforts? He/she feels the same as someone being punished. Rewards also destroy teamwork. And they lead to distortion of the system. I remember when Russia first tried to introduce baseball to its culture. Players were rewarded for not striking out. This led to a huge increase in bunting…

    But in any case, in an environment of continuous improvement, by definition, no work has a single solution.

    Mastery fits well with lean. It’s worth noting that “Challenge” is an underlying component of the Toyota Production System, and of mastery as well. Intrinsic motivation is “pulled” when people undertake a challenging task, one that is perceived to be just beyond their current skill level. Step 3 of Toyota’s eight step problem solving process is “Set the target,” an important part of which is to make the target an ambitious and challenging one.

    Purpose fits well with lean too.

    Autonomy, as Dan Pink defines it, needs more than a lean culture. I don’t agree with you that it means having direction over improvement in the workplace (although that is part of it). As Dan Pink makes very clear in his book, “Autonomy covers four aspects of work: what people do, when they do it, how they do it, and whom they do it with. Type I behavior emerges when people have autonomy over the four T’s: their task, their time, their technique, and their team.”

    However, I believe it’s a misunderstanding on Dan’s part to think that intrinsic motivation requires autonomy. What I believe is needed for one to feel intrinsic motivation, is for one to FEEL the SENSE of having autonomy, which is a subtle difference. To that extent, if someone gains a sense of autonomy from having control over improvement in the workplace, then that will nourish intrinsic motivation. If one does not get such a sense from this alone, then intrinsic motivation will not emerge from such control.

  3. Simon, thanks for the comment. I didn’t mean to misrepresent Dan’s work – thanks for the more complete listing of the four aspects of autonomy.

    I think, realistically speaking, that autonomy is a spectrum, much the same way we talk about “standard-IZED work” in the lean approach. Standardized doesn’t mean “completely robotic” and maybe autonomy shouldn’t mean complete autonomy. Standardized work has key questions – what to standardize and to what extent is it standardized – it depends on what leads to quality and safety.

    Having input into what you do and how you do it (and input into who you work with) probably can’t be 100% absolute autonomy.

    What I’ve found with Lean is that even if people don’t have 100% autonomy about how they do the work, it is possible to find fulfillment in being involved in the improvement of work. With Lean, people have input into the standardized work, but that doesn’t mean that everybody gets to have their way. That doesn’t mean that the boss should be a Taylorist ogre who forces people to do it their way or else – life is more complicated than that.

    I think Pink’s example of purely mechanistic work (where incentives would have the fewest side effects) has few examples in the real working world. So I agree with you that incentives tend to cause side effects worse than the benefits. As Pink says, the dangerous thing is that incentives WORK — but the side effects are often ignored.

    That’s my understanding of what I read combined with my thoughts on Lean. It’s been about two months since I finished the book…

  4. Hi Mark,

    Great synopsis and connection to lean and healthcare.

    I saw Dan Pink speak here in Toronto last night, and he offered a healthcare case study in response to one of the questions from the audience regarding autonomy.

    I don’t wish to misrepresent Pink or the research he cited (haven’t finished the book yet, so not sure if it’s in there), but the basics were that hospital maintenance staff that were free to make some decisions – speak with patients, help out nurses if they had a moment, etc – were much more likely to find satisfaction in their work, remain with their organization, etc, etc.

    I see this as a form of autonomy WITH parameters, that has worked well. As with many of the great arguments in the book, this concept is probably not surprising, but it’s probably also not widely practiced.

  5. Andrew – Thanks for sharing that. The nuance in life is all about the parameters. Do most organizations put too many restrictions on people? In many cases, yes. More standardization doesn’t always lead to better quality. The housekeepers should be allowed to interact with hospital patients and families in very human ways. That makes a lot of sense, housekeepers aren’t robots. They aren’t just cleaning rooms, they are helping to ensure infection control and patient safety.

    So should every housekeeper be allowed to develop their own method for cleaning rooms? That’s an area where more autonomy might mean patient harm if one method leads to higher infection rates…

  6. Mark: I understand your viewpoint re autonomy. What I am saying is that what you perceive as a spectrum of autonomy, I perceive as a spectrum of potential opportunities for a feeling of autonomy. Having input is on the lower end of the spectrum; having complete freedom is on the high end. For some, experiencing the lower end will be sufficient for a sense of autonomy. For others, it will take more freedom to feel a sense of autonomy sufficient enough to be intrinsically motivated.

    I have empirical evidence of this. I myself would not feel satisfied or intrinsically motivated with a job that only allowed me the “freedom” of choosing how to improve my work, but gave me no choice as to when I work (I hate working nights), with whom I work, or how I do my work. On the other hand, I have worked with lots of people who are very intrinsically motivated just by being listened to, which they experience as autonomy.

    It oftentimes has to do with previous experience. Someone who moves from a job on the high end of the spectrum to one at the lower end is very unlikely to feel a sense of autonomy or resultant intrinsic motivation in the new job. A maintenance staff worker in a hospital who was never permitted input with patients could very well experience a sense of autonomy if now allowed to perform the kinds of tasks cited by Andrew Webster in his comment.

    Mark, I appreciate your post. I think it’s great when attention is given to the topic of intrinsic motivation and its importance in the modern workplace. Thanks!

  7. Mark,

    I thought you might find this presentation of Dan Pink’s talk on motivation interesting. His spoken message resonates with lean thinking, however the presentation of his message is really cool.

    Thanks to Robert Hafey for sharing this link on LinkedIn’s – The Association for Manufacturing Excellence Group discussion page.



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