The April issue of CWS 30 features Daniel H. Pink, author of several provocative, bestselling books about the changing world of work. His latest is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which uses 40 years of behavioral science to overturn the conventional wisdom about human motivation and offers a more effective path to high performance for all workers -- contingent and traditional alike. His articles on business and technology appear in many publications, including the New York Times, and the Harvard Business Review. He also lectures around the world on the new workplace. A contingent himself, Pink held his last real job in the White House, where he served from 1995 to 1997 as chief speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore. He will share his latest insights as the keynote speaker at the Contingent Workforce Strategies Summit '10 conference, held Oct. 19th and 20th in Denver. Pink discusses a modern workplace where the line between contingents and traditional employees is blurring, in spite of stark legal rules.
Q: When you last talked to CWS four years ago, you said talented people need organizations less than organizations need people. Has anything changed?
A: The idea that talented people need organizations less than organizations need talented people is an enduring fact about the modern workplace, and I think that some companies are forgetting that lesson in this downturn. Companies don't always act on it, and I think that in a downturn, many of them do not and they pay a big price in the long run. They pay a big price in reduced performance today and they'll pay a big price in attrition and talent loss when labor markets improve a little bit.
Q: Okay. Let's talk about Drive, your latest book. How does the science of human motivation apply to temps, because they're not connected to companies the same way an employee is.
A: That's a really interesting question and ... it really depends on the job. Let's look at two different scenarios. First, consider a temporary employee who is doing relatively routine, straightforward, rule-based work, as some temporary employment is. I actually think that the typical set of carrot-and-stick motivators -- offering them the right incentives -- might be sufficient. I really do. And I'm not sure it's necessarily in an organization's interests to do anything more elaborate in that regard. However, if the work is a little bit more complicated, a little bit more complex, then I think that those traditional motivation schemes don't work very well. Whether it is temporary employment or [traditional] employment.
And I think people performing that kind of temporary work need a fair amount of autonomy. If you're really hiring talent to do an amazing job, you're more likely to engage productive talent if there is a measure of self-direction on the part of the worker. I think that's true of most work. I think it's absolutely essentially in work that requires creative, conceptual kinds of thought. And more interim work, more temporary work, is morphing in that direction. It's less of the slotting people into routine jobs like cogs in a machine and more of actually sourcing great talent to do complicated tasks.
So autonomy matters a huge amount. That's one big human motivator. The other motivator for people who are working in a temporary situation, just as people working in any situation, is a sense of making progress and achieving mastery. I think that's as true for temporary employees as it is for so-called permanent employees. I think where you run into a little bit of a challenge is on the notion of purpose as a motivator. I think it's harder -- sometimes, not always -- to link temporary employees into a broader transcendent purpose than it is permanent employees.
Q: Research indicates that people who work in temp positions really are working as contingents to get recognized by a company they want to join as a traditional employee.
A: I think it's also an opportunity to do interesting work. But I think that carrying out a company's purpose isn't that germane for temporary employees. I think that people would be motivated by a sense of purpose within a particular project that they're working on. But I think that autonomy and mastery are hugely important in temporary work, as they are in anything, because these motivators, these drives that we have are fundamental parts of being a human being. No one is more or less a human being because of the structure of his or her employment.
Q: How do you see this whole ecosystem inhabited by companies engaging contingents evolving?
A: An eco system -- I think that's a good way to put it. I think it is an ecosystem and I think that it changes based on time, the structures of industries and the structures of jobs. I do think what's happening to that ecosystem, to the broader labor market, is that the routine abilities, whether they're white-collar abilities, where you're following a set of rules and getting the right answer, or blue-collar abilities where you're doing repetitive physical work, that stuff's not that valuable any more.
Now, people are doing more sophisticated, less algorithmic sorts of things, and that's a huge change to the ecosystem. In terms of the relationship between employers and employees, -- less in the world of a contingent workers and more in the world of the traditional W-2 workers -- one of the big changes is that if you look at where the structure of their work lies, there's an element of contingency to it. I mean most people don't go to a company expecting to stay for a hugely long time.
More and more of the responsibility for, say, health insurance or pensions, is on the shoulders of the individual employee, even if that employee is a traditional, W-2 employee. And I think that one of the things that's happening in the ecosystem the blurring of the boundaries between contingent and traditional employment. Legally, there's obviously a very stark line between the two. But if you take three steps back and look at them not through a legal lens but, as you suggest, through a kind of ecosystem lens, then I think the species start looking a little bit similar.
That is, they have in many ways the same basic bargain underlying their work: they are trading talent for opportunity, and there's no promise of security and not much of a promise of loyalty. In that regard, no matter how the employment is classified as a matter of law, those two species begin to resemble each other a little.
Q: Having said that, then, should HR change the ways it looks at talent?
A: No. I don't think that necessarily you should say everybody is inherently contingent. I think that it's kind of baked into the arrangement. But whether you are a company or a staffing agency, there's a huge premium on finding great talent and treating that talent exceptionally well. I think it's true for a staffing agency that wants to have a great roster of talent. And it's true for a company that wants to have great individuals working at least for some time for that company.
Again, it goes back to your first question, which is that I really do think that the talented people need these organizations less than these organizations need the talented people. And, again, that gets harder to see in 10 percent unemployment. But I think the underlying dynamic of that hasn't changed. Any HR person or any line manager can tell you there's often orders-of-magnitude difference in ability, especially when you're dealing with creative, conceptual kind of work. It's not that one person can make 10 widgets an hour while another can only make nine. It's the awesome performer who comes up with these great ideas and knows how to connect the dots, which makes her 80 times more valuable than her peer.
Q: Talk to me a little bit about the results-of-the-work-environment idea.
A: There's an interesting idea that was created by two HR executives formerly at Best Buy. What they decided to do was start experimenting with essentially throwing out schedules and having people come into work whenever they wanted to, or not at all, in some cases. Let them show up when they wanted, if they wanted, but hold them accountable for getting their work done.
And this has been an idea that hasn't spread widely but it has spread, particularly among some smaller enterprises, and in most cases it's led to satisfaction -- it's actually reduced attrition and, arguably, boosted productivity, although the numbers are not quite clear on that. And it certainly boosted job satisfaction and reduced turnover -- in some ways it's kind of relates your earlier question about the ecosystem. In some ways, when you treat people like that, you're in some ways treating them like contractors. That is, in some ways you're simulating inside the walls of the firm the conditions for what it would be like to work outside the walls of the firm.
Q: What do you see as the common thread between your three books and how does it play out for companies trying to get broke down in the future?
A: I don't want to elevate this too much, but I think if there is a common thread, it is a recognition that there is an affinity between what people do as work and humanity, in some sense. That is, too often we've tended to think of work as not fully a part of who we are as human beings, and I think that people actually want what they do to earn a living to be in some way part of who they are as human beings. That there isn't this kind of perfect separation between the work-self and the self-self. I'm not saying that it's identical in all ways, nor even that it should be identical in all ways.
But what you saw in Free Agent Nation was this idea of people pushing against, often leaving large organizations because they felt they couldn't be fully themselves. In A Whole New Mind, there's this move toward these more right-brained kinds of abilities. That is, I think people are frustrated, didn't feel they could use all of their capacities that they were born with, and in Drive, one of the takeaways from the science is that you get better work done if you treat people like human beings rather than like horses.
So I do think that there is this natural affinity between work and being human. And I think it's a part of who we are that is our capacity to want to direct our lives and a capacity to want to do something and create something and have an impact on the world and collaborate with other people. I think that's part of what it is to be human. And maybe in some ways the common thread among all three is my own attempt to work out that meta problem.
Q: How does it play out for companies trying to get work done?
A: Basically, I think we've got to get beyond this idea of people as resources. We have to get back to the idea of people as people. I just think that being human, treating people like individuals, treating people well, treating people not as inputs or as resources but as fellow human beings is not only the right thing to do in a morale sense, but I actually think it's the effective thing to do today. So I think that's how it would play out.
If you look at why people leave organizations, they never say, "Oh, I was treated too humanely. I was treated too much like an individual." You never hear that complaint from people once they leave organizations. You hear the opposite complaint. You hear the complaint, "Oh, I felt like a cog in a big machine. I felt like I wasn't being taken seriously. I felt like nobody was listening to me. I felt that my boss didn't care." And so, I think that's really the lesson. We're fortunate enough in many cases -- not all cases, and not every day of every company's lives but I think in many ways -- to find that treating people humanely is actually a better pathway to performance over the long run.
Q: What's your message going to be to the audience at the 2010 CWS Summit?
A: I think it's going to be very much aligned with what we're talking about here, which is this idea that no matter the form of employment, I think that the science shows that enduring motivation is rooted in some common things and it might have different expressions if someone's a contingent worker, temporary worker, interim worker, versus whether someone's a full-time, W-2 worker. But what we really have to think about at a deeper level is whatever the form of employment, what really motivates talent for conceptual, creative tasks isn't a sweeter carrot or a sharper stick, but these other things that are harder to put in place but actually provide more enduring motivation and performance. It's a sense of self-direction, of mastery, and connecting people to some kind of purpose. It's a very, very hard thing to do. It's probably harder in contingent work, but it's really the only way to produce results and motivation over the long haul.