How to Motivate Workers: Developing a More Engaged & Innovative Workforce

How to Motivate Workers: Developing a More Engaged & Innovative Workforce

Before we begin our article, let's begin with a teaser to get you interested.

There's a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

Daniel Pink, TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation

And with that attention-grabbing teaser, let's return to our article, which ultimately addresses that teaser, explains it, and and offers tips on how to solve the problem...(but know that you can also find the video of that TED Talk near the bottom of this article).

We're moving into a new era of manufacturing. Or really, we've already entered the new era, and things are continuing to change at increasing rates even now.

If you've heard people talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, you've already heard about it. The same is true if you've heard people talking about advanced manufacturing.

And that's great, because this era holds a lot of exciting promise. But there's a problem, too. Many employers are struggling to find enough workers with the necessary advanced skills. If you've heard of or read articles about the skills gap, you know what we're talking about.

As a training company servicing the manufacturing industry, we're dedicated to providing workforce training materials to help workers develop the skills necessary to help their companies thrive in this new, modern economy. Training can and does provide a measurable leg up in the perpetual manufacturing skill arms race.

But while training is helpful, important, and necessary, it can't be the entire solution. There's more to it than just that. For one thing, you've got to have workers who are motivated and capable of learning new skills--the skills they need today, and the new skills they will need tomorrow.

All that learning and skill acquisition takes motivation. Motivation to learn, motivation to acquire new skills, and motivation to be creative and innovative. But where does all that motivation come from?

Some of the motivation factor is up to the employee, of course. But employers also play a big role in creating and sustaining an environment that encourages motivation, creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.

In recent years, cognitive scientists, psychologists, behavioral economists, and other experts have learned a lot about what motivates people in their lives and at work. Some of those findings are pretty counter-intuitive.

What's really stunning is that while some companies are doing the right things on this point, many or even most companies are not. Not only are their management practices, rules, and culture not actively contributing to these desirable workforce characteristics, they're actively working against and stifling motivation. This is one of the areas of workforce organization where there's a large gap between what studies and research shows us and what companies really do.

And that's a shame, since the research is out there and in many cases can be easily applied if companies just look into it and make a few simple changes. Some companies will succeed precisely because they have taken steps to motivate workers to learn and innovate. And other companies will fail not only because they failed to take those steps, but because their culture, rules, and management techniques actually stifled that motivation to learn and create new business value.

In this article, we're going to give you some tips from Daniel Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, which focuses on how companies can create a workplace environment that nurtures these important traits in their workers. Pink's book is based on and compiles research from a lot of scholars in this field, including Dan Ariely (whose book The Upside of Irrationality: the Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home we've written about in the past).

Three Motivating Drives

As Pink explains, researchers claim there are three primary drives that motivate people. We explain each below.

The Biological Drive

People are biological creatures. And as such, they have biological drives that motivate them.

These drives include everything involved in the elemental struggle for survival: food, water, shelter, safety, and sex.

Here's how Pink summarizes this one:

In our very early days--I mean very early days, say, fifth thousand years ago--the underlying assumption about human behavior was simple and true. We were trying to survive. From roaming the savannah to gather food to scrambling for the bushes when a saber-toothed tiger approached, that drive guided most of our behavior. Call this early operating system Motivation 1.0. It wasn't especially elegant, nor was it much different from those of rhesus monkeys, giant apes, or many other animals. But it served us nicely. It worked well. Until it didn't.

Source: Pink, Chapter 1, The Rise and Fall Of Motivation 2.0

In his book, Pink refers to this drive as Motivation 1.0.

Rewards and Punishments

Beyond our simple biological drives, humans also respond to and are (at times) motivated by rewards and punishments from our external environment.

Here's how Pink explains this motivating drive:

Humans are more than the sum of our biological urges. The first drive still mattered--no doubt about that--but it didn't fully account for who we are. We also had a second drive--to seek reward and avoid punishment more broadly. And it was from this insight that a new operating system--call it Motivation 2.0--arose.

Source: Pink, Chapter 1, The Rise and Fall of Motivation 2.0

Pink refers to the motivating drive of rewards and punishments as a system of "carrots" (the rewards) and "sticks" (the punishments). And he explains that this motivating drive has been widely used in business management since at least the time of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Scientific Management.

If you're familiar with the concepts of a sales person getting a commission for making a big sale (a carrot), or a worker getting "written up" for being repeatedly late for work, you recognize this motivational system.

In his book, Pink refers to this drive as Motivation 2.0.

Intrinsic Motivation--the Desire to Learn, Create, and Improve the World

The third motivating drive is intrinsic, meaning it comes from ourselves or inside. It's the freedom, challenge, and purpose, and the enjoyment and satisfaction, that comes with working on something and trying to complete it (or improve it).

Here's how Pink explains it:

The Motivation 3.0 operating system--the upgrade that's needed to meet the new realities of how we organize, think about, and do what we do--depends on what I call Type I behavior (note: Pink uses the "I" in "type I" to stand for "intrinsic"). Type I behavior is fueled more by intrinsic desires than extrinsic ones. It concerns itself less with the external rewards to which an activity leads and more with the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.

Source: Pink, Chapter 3, Type I and Type X

As you may have guessed and will see as you read on, Pink believes companies should do what they can to maximize the powers of this third motivating drive at work, especially for the kind of tasks that the new jobs of today and the future demand: learning new knowledge, gaining new skills, problem-solving, and innovating.

In his book, Pink refers to this drive as Motivation 3.0.

Stifling Motivation in Workers: What Companies Are Doing Wrong (And Why)

Pink notes that the system of rewards and punishments (carrots and sticks) has been widely used for a long time. And in many cases, especially for jobs that don't require learning, creativity, problem-solving, and innovation, it's worked well.

But Pink notes that research shows the punishment/reward method of external motivation that many companies use isn't always the right choice. As Pink explains the purpose of his book:

This is a book about motivation. I will show that much of what we believe about the subject just isn't so...The problem is that most businesses haven't caught up to this new understanding of what motivates us. Too many organizations--not just companies, but governments and nonprofits as well--still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don't work and often do harm.

Source: Pink, Introduction

Pink points to a number of famous thinkers whose work has pointed out the flaws of relying purely on punishment/reward for external motivation and ignoring inherent, intrinsic motivating factors. These include Abraham Maslow and his field of humanistic psychology; MIT management professor Douglas McGregor; management professor Frederick Herzberg; and the famous W. Edwards Deming, who's at the roots of so much of recent manufacturing.

Why External Motivating Factors (Rewards/Punishments) Don't Motivate Workers to Achieve Excellence

Beyond explaining many interesting experiments that show how external motivation (rewards and punishments) don't always work, and how inherent drives often do, Pink gives three explanations why the traditional methods of using rewards and punishments to motivate workers can be counter-productive.

Pink calls these the "three incompatibility problems." In his own words:

The system of rewards and punishments for external motivation still serves some purposes well. It's just deeply unreliable. Sometimes it works; many times it doesn't. And understanding its defects will help determine which parts to keep and which to discard as we fashion an upgrade. The glitches fall into three broad categories. Our current operating system has become far less compatible with, and at times downright antagonistic to: how we organize what we do; how we think about what we do; and how we do what we do.

Let's look at each more closely.

How we organize what we do:

Pink's first "incompatibility problem" is based on the issue that there are many organizations creating great and famous products and business solutions that just don't match the traditional view of how we motivate workers to create products.

People are coming together on a voluntary basis, with no compensation, to create products many of us use every day. And people are creating new legal frameworks for creating businesses that don't have the same profit-maximizing goals that traditional companies do.

By way of example, Pink offers open-source examples in which people volunteer their work to make excellent products. These include some you probably know very well, such as:

  • Wikipedia, an all-volunteer effort that outcompeted the massive Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia project
  • Linux, open-source software that powers many computer servers
  • Apache, open-source Web server softwares
  • Firefox, an open-sourced web browser

The people who participate in creating these projects report doing so because the work is fun, because of the opportunity to achieve mastery, and because it's a good way to give back to the larger community. As you can see, these aren't traditional carrots and sticks.

Likewise, Pink points to the legal foundation of new types of corporations, such as L3Cs (a legal way to organize to create socially beneficial, for-profit ventures) and B-Corpations (for companies who want to benefit society as well as shareholders), and "for-benefit organizations" such as Mozilla.

Mozilla's homepage makes this new organization purpose obvious:

Mozilla--Motivating Workers In New Ways

As Pink's examples demonstrate, the way people come together to work on projects, and the reasons why they do so, are changing in today's world.

How we think about what we do:

Pink's second "incompatibility problem" is that older theories of what motivates people and workers just doesn't line up with what research tells us.

In traditional economics, and as a result much of traditional management theory, we've assumed that people are "wholly rational beings" who always act to maximize wealth. For example, given a choice between two jobs, classical theory suggests we'd always take the higher-paying one.

But newer fields such as behavioral economics and cognitive psychology tell us that's not always true. If you're familiar with Freakonomics (the book) or Freakonomics (the NPR radio show), or the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, or the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, you know the traditional model overly simplifies human behavior and as a result often gets it wrong when talking about our motivating drives, when predicting what we will do, and when attempting to explain why we do it.

In short, humans often do things that seem at odds with a model that assumes we always act to maximize external stimuli. Instead, there are many instances in which internal, intrinsic factors motivate us--sometimes in seeming opposition to external carrot/stick factors.

As Pink explains:

The trouble for our purposes is that Motivation 2.0 assumes we're the same robotic wealth-maximizers I was taught we were a couple of decades ago. Indeed, the very premise of extrinsic incentives is that we'll always respond rationally to them. But even most economists don't believe that anymore. Sometimes these motivators work. Often they don't. And many times, they inflict collateral damage. In short, the new way economists think about what we do is hard to reconcile with Motivation 2.0) or acquiring a mate (Motivation 1.0) from doing so. We play with puzzles even when we don't get a few raisins or dollars for solving them.

Source: Pink, Chapter 1, The Rise and Fall of Motivation 2.0

Pink gives some examples that sum this point up nicely:

...consider some of our other bizarre behaviors. We leave lucrative jobs to take low-paying ones that provide a clearer sense of purpose. We work to master the clarinet on weekends although we have little hope of making a dime (Motivation 2.0).

Source: Pink, Chapter 1, The Rise and Fall of Motivation 2.0

How we do what we do:

Finally, Pink's third "incompatibility problem" is that employment has changed over time, many jobs of today (and the future) call for more creativity and innovation, and that's changed how we should think of motivation for these jobs as well.

According to Pink, workplaces used to rightly focus on external motivating factors. That's because work was often made up of simple and boring tasks that left little or no room for intrinsic personal gratification and motivation.

But Pink also says, and this seems true, that "for a surprisingly large number of people, jobs have become more complex, more interesting, and more self-directed."

The fact that more and more people are required to work in environments in which they're constantly learning, gaining new skills, problem-solving, and being creative and innovative comes into direct conflict with the old Motivation 2.0/carrots & sticks motivation theory. As Pink puts it:

Researchers such as Harvard Business School's Teresa Amabile have found that external rewards and punishments--both carrots and sticks--can work nicely for (simple, procedural job tasks). But they can be devastating for (complex, creative, innovative job tasks). Those sorts of challenges--solving novel problems or creating something the world didn't know it was missing-depend heavily on Harlow's third drive. Amabile calls it the intrinsic motivation principle of creativity, which holds, in part: "Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity controlling extrinsic motivation is detrimental to creativity." In other words, the central tenets of Motivation 2.0 may actually impair performance of the complex, creative work on which modern economies depend.

Source: Pink, Chapter 1, The Rise and Fall of Motivation 2.0

So, in short, if you want innovative workers, the motivation must come from them. Carrots and sticks, rewards and punishment, won't do it (and they may even make the situation worse). So it's up to you as an employer to choose what kind of workforce you want.

A Quick Note About Compensation

It would be a mistake to read Pink's critique of using punishment and rewards to motivate workers and come out with a takeaway that you don't have to pay workers fairly or well.

As Pink puts it:

Of course, the starting point for any discussion of motivation in the workplace is a simple fact of life: People have to earn a living. Salary, contract payments, some benefits, a few perks are what I call "baseline rewards." If someone's baseline rewards aren't adequate or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance. You'll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation. You'll get very little motivation at all. The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.

Source: Pink, Chapter 2, Seven Reasons Carrots and Sticks (Often) Don't Work...

My own takeaways from Pink's book on this topics are:

  • Pay people what they're worth. Don't try to underpay.
  • Better yet, pay them what they're worth and a little more.
  • If you don't pay them what they're worth, they'll lack motivation and won't perform as well as they would otherwise, AND/OR, they'll leave your company for one that does pay them what they're worth.

The Three Secrets of Motivating Workers to Learn, Problem-Solve, and Innovate: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

So, you might assume that if workers who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to learn more, acquire new skills, be creative, solve problems, and innovate, then there's nothing to do as an employer. Just hire them and get out of the way.

And that's partly or even largely true.

But there are things you can do to structure (or perhaps "un-structure") the workplace in a way that allows this intrinsic motivation to take hold and flourish.

According to Pink, employers want to create conditions in which their employees will have or be able to pursue a sense of:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Let's see what he means by each.


In his TED Talk, Pink defines autonomy as "the urge to direct our own lives."

At work, that means letting employees make their own decisions, guide their own actions, and be in charge of what they're doing. You can see how this is different than a lot of traditional management philosophies, which tend to spend a lot of time trying to control workers.

But how do we allow employees autonomy? Pink says we should aim for letting employees be autonomous over four different aspects when possible. As he puts it:

And what a few future-facing businesses are discovering is that one of the essential features is autonomy--in particular, autonomy over four aspects of work: what people do, when they do it, how they do it, and whom they do it with."

Pink relates these four autonomies to four Ts, explained below:

  1. Task: Let workers choose what they want to work on, at least some time. For example, Google allows workers to spend 20% of their work time on their own projects, and many of Google's most famous products, such as Gmail, came from that 20% time.
  2. Time: Let workers make their own hours when possible. Other similar efforts allow workers to work any number of hours, as long as their work is done, and to have unlimited amounts of vacation time.
  3. Technique: Give workers more freedom to perform their jobs in the way they think best (an example here is the famous story of the great customer service at Zappos).
  4. Team: Give workers the freedom to pair up with and work with coworkers of their choice.

These four autonomies can't be implemented at every company and for every job. And different individuals prize different elements of autonomy. As a result, Pink just recommends trying to provide workers with as much autonomy as possible, and to find what types of autonomy are important to individual workers.


In his TED Talk, Pink defines mastery as "the desire to get better and better at something that matters."

As you guessed, Pink recommends creating conditions in which workers can strive for mastery at work. And he claims that autonomy is the path to mastery. As he says:

The opposite of autonomy is control. And since they sit at different poles of the behavioral compass, they point us toward different destinations. Controls leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement. And this distinction leads to the select element of intrinsically-motivated behavior: mastery--the desire to get better and better at something that matters.

Source: Pink, Chapter 5, Mastery

Pink continues by equating mastery as essential to worker engagement, and by providing some depressing words on worker engagement in America:

Unfortunately, despite sweet-smelling words like "empowerment" that waft through corporate corridors, the modern workplace's most notable feature may be its lack of engagement and its disregard for mastery. Gallup's extensive research on the subject that that in the United States, more than 50 percent of employees are not engaged at work--and nearly 20 percent are actively disengaged. The cost of all this disengagement: about &300 billion a year in lost productivity.

Source: Pink, Chapter 5, Mastery

He further explains that the quest for mastery is eternal--one never truly develops mastery. But the process of striving for it and getting incrementally closer and closer, which Pink calls "flow," is a sort of sweet-spot that people flourish in. And so as an employer, you want to help create situations at work where employees are in flow and headed toward mastery.

As Pink puts it:

" [a surprising result from research is that] people are much more likely to reach that flow state at work than in leisure. Work can often have the structure of other [flow] experiences; clear goals, immediate feedback, challenges well matched to our abilities. And when it does, we don't just enjoy it more, we do it better. That's why it's so odd that organizations tolerate work environments that deprive large numbers of people of these experiences...[research on people's day-to-day motivation levels on the job] has found that the single greatest motivator is "making progress in one's work." The days that people make progress are the days they feel most motivated and engaged. By creating conditions for people to make progress, shining a light on that progress, recognizing and celebrating progress, organizations can help their own cause and enrich people's lives.

Source: Pink, Chapter 5, Mastery

To help create these conditions at work, Pink suggests the following three tips:

  • People are more likely to be in flow and strive toward mastery if they believe they can improve and approach mastery. Part of the struggle is just believing it's possible. Managers should help instill this belief in workers.
  • Approaching mastery takes work, and the best predictor of success is "grit," which might also be called the tendency to "stick to it."
  • People never fully develop mastery--they can get increasingly close, but never attain it. One of the lessons here is that we should never stop learning and trying to do better.


The third and final motivating intrinsic motivating drive is a sense of purpose. In his TED Talk, Pink defines purpose as "the desire to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves."

To put that in the context of work, people are more motivated to work when they feel it contributes to a greater good (beyond merely increased production and improved revenue/profits).

As Pink says:

Autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more. The most deeply motivated people--not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied--hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves."

Source: Pink, Chapter 6, Purpose

According to Pink, we can reflect and accent the purpose motive in three parts of organizational life, listed below:

  • Goals--Your organization can try to maximize profits or capture a market, but don't have that that as the company's larger goal. Create goals for the company that allow your employees to feel they're contributing to a larger, greater good. And, actively work toward those goals.
  • Words--While it's important to discuss and explain "what" and "how" at work, remember to also discuss and explain "why" and tie that back to purpose.
  • Policies--Create policies at work that emphasize autonomy and purpose (instead of policies that attempt to control workers and limit autonomy).

Motivating Workers: The TED Talk Version

We thought you might enjoy this TED Talk video in which Pink discusses all of this. It takes about 19 minutes and is a good 19 minutes to spend if you want to quickly learn how to motivate workers at your company (or really, how not to kill their intrinsic motivation).

Remember for more, you can always buy and read the book.

Conclusion: Motivating Workers for a More Engaged, Innovative, and Productive Workforce

Hope you found this view of how to motivate workers and how to develop a more innovative workforce interesting.

To summarize the whole thing and wrap it up in a nice little ball, here's how Pink summarizes his own TED Talk:

There's a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. And here's what science knows:

  1. The 20th-century rewards and motivators that we think are the natural parts of business do work but only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.
  2. Those "if-then" rewards often destroy creativity.
  3. The secret to high performance isn't rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive, the drive to do things for their own sake, the drive to do things because they matter.

And here's the best part, here's the best part: we already know this. Science confirms what we know in our hearts. So, if we repair this mismatch between what science knows and what business does, if we bring our notions of motivation into the 21st century, if we get past this lazy, dangerous ideology of carrots and sticks, we can strengthen our businesses, we can solve a lot of those candle problems, and maybe, maybe, maybe, we can save the world.

How does a more engaged, motivated workforce sound to you? One full of workers who are creative, who solve problems, and who innovate? Aren't these the skills that companies need in our new era?

Can you afford to stick with an outdated management philosophy that's holding you back?

Before you go, download our free guide to manufacturing training and let us know if we can help you with training, performance improvement, risk management, or safety management issues at your workplace.

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