Article of the Day: How Businesses Go About Motivating People All Wrong

Candle problem.

Everyone likes getting a little extra cash, but we shouldn’t think it makes us work any harder. Author and motivation expert Dan Pink knows this better than anybody. In his 2009 TED talk “The puzzle of motivation,” which was based on his hit book “Drive,” Pink explains the “fundamental mismatch” that exists between science and business.

Science, Pink says, knows that incentives don’t work. Business, however, has yet to catch up.

Pink begins his talk outlining a popular psychology experiment known as the “candle problem.” The goal is to use tacks and matches to fix a candle to the wall. Most people come up with clever, but ultimately misguided solutions. The right answer involves emptying the box of tacks and pinning the box to the wall, thereby creating a platform for the candle. Business is full of candle problems, Pink claims. All around the world, companies ask employees to solve problems that require non-obvious answers. But there’s a problem…

According to Pink, the way businesses motivate people to solve those problems is completely misguided: They rely on incentives like bonuses, perks, and free stuff, while all the science suggests those don’t work. One study he references involved two groups of college students performing timed creative tasks. One group was told they’d earn more money the faster they got the job done. The other group earned nothing.

…the group with the highest financial incentive did the worst overall.

Surprisingly, the group with the highest financial incentive did the worst overall. The experiment and its results have since been replicated in countless different forms, Pink says. “What’s alarming here is that our business operating system — think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources — it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators.”

Dan Pink

For 21st-century jobs, this can result in huge losses of resources and hours of time wasted. If companies want to be efficient, Pink says, they need to take a new approach. That new approach relies on giving employees three key things: autonomy over their work, a feeling they can achieve mastery, and a larger sense of purpose.

In his talk, Pink addresses only autonomy. As his examples, he looks to tech companies that give their employees occasional freedom to work on whatever they want. At Google, for instance, employees were given the now-famous 80/20 time. Employees could spend 80% of their time on work and 20% on creative side projects. The initiative led to the invention of such hits as Google News, Gmail, and AdSense.

In “Drive,” Pink outlines the other two factors. Mastery is crucial because people need to sense they’re making progress to stay engaged. But without purpose, that progress becomes trivial and unfulfilling. He concludes: “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 — we can change the world.”

Chris Weller
is a senior innovation reporter at

This article appeared in Business Insider on 12  January 2017

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