Demotivating Motivational Speakers

It’s amazing that a talk about rewards and incentives, intending to debunk them as a tool of modern business and using this as a springboard to introduce supposedly better motivational techniques, more in tune with scientific discoveries about what really motivates us, can end up raising some important questions that, as far as I am aware, have not been answered.

Here is the TED talk, by Daniel Pink, entitled “The Puzzle of Motivation”:

Let me set out my stall.  I believe the science.  Rewards and incentives don’t work in a huge number of real world business circumstances.  The science says they don’t work in the majority of them, in all probability.  In fact, a system of rewards or incentives makes performance worse for any task that requires a little initiative, creative thinking or a novel or innovative approach.  They fail miserably for any task that requires a level of intellectual engagement or cognitive application.  Why?  Because rewards narrow the focus on what is perceived to be the immediate goal, blinding the person so incentivized from all other possibilities, including the optimum answer.

So, science knows, with repeatable, evidential certainty that rewards only work for highly prescribed, scripted, mechanical tasks, where the work is repetitive and simple.  For intellectual or imaginative tasks, rewards not only don’t work, they hinder.  Paradoxically though, business still thinks rewards work in all cases where they are applied, despite the ample proof to the contrary.  There is clearly a discrepancy between what science knows and what business does.  This is a curious anomaly, until you start to think about what the main motivators of people turn out to be and what the implications for business are, in reality – more on this matter later in this post.

Given that carrots and sticks don’t work to create motivation for any task that requires creativity, then what does work?  Clearly people create.  What motivates them to do so?  According to Daniel Pink, motivation comes down to three important factors:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

Artists have always known this intuitively.  It has been their modus operandi for centuries.  Can you imagine how awful art would be if every artist was rewarded for piecework?  You’d get a production line that produces the same art every time.  That loses the very essence of artistic creativity and reduces the practice to little more than a process for producing identical results.

If you want to be surprised and delighted, artists need more autonomy than that.  They need to be able to master their art and to work with purpose and conviction.

Let’s examine these three factors one by one:


We’re adults.  We drive cars, vote, organise how to eat every day and know what to do with ourselves, when and how, without external direction.  We don’t need to be governed in our everyday actions.  The same applies to our work.  We’re quite capable of organising our work tasks and our application to them, to get things done.  Since we were children, we were self-organising, in our play and in our learning, to a large extent.  It is only when systems and organisations step in, which try to take our autonomy away, that things become sub optimal.

Suddenly, we have to work to somebody else’s schedule and task priorities.  We no longer control our time, attention and application.  We don’t get to take time out when our bodies or minds are fatigued.  Essentially, most modern regimented learning and management in business settings utterly thwart or take away our autonomy – our capacity to get things done without external interference or direction.

Even in collaborative activities, we generally knew how to organise each other when we were children, yet somehow as adults, in a job, we have to follow Gantt charts, have meetings and report status, as if that was some kind of substitute for genuine progress.

It turns out that when people get their autonomy back, with freedom about what to do, when and how, our motivation returns as well.  I guess it begins to feel like childhood play all over again.  The more it feels like self-directed learning or play, the higher our satisfaction and it has been shown that our performance improves too.

I’ve seldom seen artists that work in anything other than an autonomous way.


It’s exceedingly commonplace for people to want to be good at what they do.  People are motivated, intrinsically, to improve their skills in their chosen field of endeavour.  We like to get better and better and enjoy the challenge of producing something superior to what we could produce before.  There is a Zen satisfaction in obtaining a depth of knowledge and mastery of our skills.  It seems we’re wired for progress and personal growth.

In employment settings, however, how often do you find yourself diverted from this goal?  You have to keep working at the same level, or enrichment and learning opportunities are denied to you, or else you are constantly distracted and moved from improving your performance in a task you love, to perform some other sorts of tasks.  Signing leave chits was never my idea of becoming a great innovator, for example.  Neither was being told that somebody else was in charge of producing all the bright ideas and company direction.

It has been discovered and confirmed that if people are left to hone and perfect their skills, in whatever area interests them most, they are motivated to do so and produce far better results than those without that opportunity.  We like to make good things well.

Again, artists have always been this way.  They spend entire careers mastering their materials and techniques.  It’s just what they do.


Finding your purpose is something that many people struggle with, but a clue is in noticing things that light you up, enthuse you and turn your work drudgery into a pleasure you cannot believe somebody pays you to do.  It may have to do with a higher meaning or calling, or it might be something that makes you content with the idea that you’re playing your part and making wider changes for the better that impact other people positively.  Working with purpose is equivalent to tapping into your deepest and most powerful motivation.

When we are working with purpose, we attempt to solve the most difficult problems and persevere with the most daunting, demanding and challenging of tasks that less motivated people would simply give up on.  It’s the kind of motivation that lets us dig deep from inside of ourselves to produce our best work.  Working with purpose makes the impossible, possible.

Artists know this inner drive, driven by a higher purpose, as their creative muse or in some cases, the source of their creative angst.  The need to strive to do something for some purpose greater than oneself is a strong artistic motivator, which has lead artists to create works of the most staggeringly beautiful and ambitious kinds.  The Sistine chapel springs to mind.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in Business

If you want autonomy, mastery and purpose as the primary motivators, in a business context, so that you get the highest levels of performance possible, they say you should take money issues off the table first.  Don’t be cheap.  If you want a work force that acts autonomously, pursues mastery and works with purpose, then you cannot let money get in the way of that.  You shouldn’t try to buy this kind of performance cheaply, nor should you allow money to constrain their autonomy, their pursuit of mastery or to interfere with their purpose.  In other words, you need deep pockets, generosity and the willingness to cede control over people.

This, I am afraid, is where most employers fall down.  They find it exceedingly difficult to not manage, to trust their people to get the work done to a high standard, to give them all the resources they need to succeed and to not drive wages and conditions down to the lowest possible level, to retain more of the earnings as profit.  It is this aspect of the theory of encouraging autonomy, mastery and purpose in business contexts that I find most demotivating.  Businesses are not serious about doing it.  They’d rather pay token rewards, which might even harm performance, than to set themselves up to fully support an autonomous workforce, which is striving to achieve mastery, while working with purpose.  They want AMP’d up people, but aren’t willing to pay the necessary price or give up control.

Daniel Pink’s theory goes that if employers just give their employees the opportunity to work with autonomy, mastery and purpose, then their performance will be at peak levels at all times and the employer will make more money.  What’s wrong with this picture?  There are contradictions and conflicts of interest built into this theory.  What’s good for the employer is not good for the employee and vice versa.  The seeds of failure are inherent in the employer/employee relationship and all the cultural artefacts that we have accepted over centuries, related to this power inequality.

In the first place, how can you give somebody autonomy?  Autonomy, almost by definition, is something that has to be taken and the taking requires no permission.  If it requires the assent of somebody else, then you aren’t autonomous.  In fact, if anybody can interfere with your work in any way, you’re not genuinely autonomous.  I think that most employers would struggle to claim that their people are truly autonomous.  If they were, “employers” would be prepared to allow their “employees” to do whatever work that interests them and to offer the results to anybody, not just the nominal “employer”, if that made most sense.  Clearly, no employer is going to countenance a notional employee selling his or her work products to somebody else, even if that makes the most sense to them.  You effectively cannot be fully autonomous in any arrangement of employer power over employee.  The autonomy will always find its limits and sometimes they will be severe.

Secondly, how can you be the master of somebody that achieves mastery?  They’re their own man, as a master.  They don’t need an employer to act as their master.  At best, if both the employer and employee achieve mastery, the relationship can be a partnership of equals, but while the employer insists that the employee remains dependent upon them for money and resources, mastery cannot be claimed.  It remains a subservient relationship, with the employee an apprentice or journeyman, in perpetuity.

If, on the other hand, mastery truly is achieved by an employee, then we have the anomalous situation where the lesser skilled person claims ownership over the one that has achieved mastery.  This is clearly upside down.

Finally, how can you create purpose where none exists?   Why should the employee’s purpose be the same as the employer’s purpose?   They’re very likely to have very different circumstances, history, values, ethics, morals and goals.  In life, you either have purpose or you don’t and you find it within yourself.  You usually don’t adopt a “purpose of convenience”, from an employer.  You might say you share their purpose, but unless it comes from the deepest place within you and co-incidentally corresponds with the employer’s purpose, then you’re living a charade.

The important point is that only your genuine purpose will motivate you.  An adopted purpose, taken on for the convenience of a working relationship, will fail to move you when it needs to.  Purpose is simply not something an employer can provide or give permission to exist and be expressed.  It almost has no meaning, in a business context.

Those objections aside, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that somebody has achieved autonomy, mastery and purpose.  If that is the case, what is the reason to manage them?  What would a manager even do, that adds value, in this case?  Their role would be extremely limited.  They couldn’t act as task master, mentor, guide, expert, authority or vision setter, because the person, having become AMP’d up, would have no need of those things, except from somebody who has achieved a greater level of mastery, perhaps.  A functional middle manager or even a general purpose CEO is not a good surrogate for a genuinely qualified, admired and respected mentor in the same field of mastery.  That being the case, to whom should the AMP’d up employee defer and for what possible reason?  Autonomy, mastery and purpose imply a very high degree of independence.

Given the independence and attainment of the autonomous, masterful and purposeful person, why should their work output belong to an employer?  How else would their unique work output come to exist?  Not through directed, purposeless employees that have not achieved mastery, for sure.

For that matter, why is a salary sufficient compensation for this level of masterful contribution?  This is the paradox and why businesses prefer to carry on rewarding for mechanical, directed performance.  It’s easier to lay claim to ownership of the results, if the people working for you are not autonomous, have not achieved mastery and do not work with purpose.  Claims to sole ownership over the work products of AMP’d up people is pretty hard to justify convincingly.

I find the application of motivations that artists have always relied upon to business contexts, where the employer is assumed to own the lion’s share of the value created by masters they employ, quite depressing and demotivating.  You’d have to be stupid to be working to your own agenda, mastering your craft or art, for a burning internal purpose, yet be willing to hand over all the value you created for a meagre salary that stops as soon as you stop working.

Capital, without the application of labour, knowledge, passion, skill, purpose and mastery, is actually valueless.  A pile of money doesn’t do anything of its own accord.  Neither does a room full of idle machines, a desktop full of tools or a warehouse full of raw materials.  These are the things that shareholders own.  They do not own autonomous, masterly people working with a higher purpose.  They don’t own that at all.  Even if they rent the time of such people, it’s a consumable.  They don’t own the person.  Where things go astray is when shareholders assert that their ownership of the capital used to create a work product entitles them to all the profits derived from that work solely, in perpetuity.  They even lay claim to the intellectual property generated by the autonomous, purposeful master.  This is a grave injustice and something of a con trick enforced by an unequal power relationship.

I suspect that others who have achieved autonomy, mastery and purpose would feel similarly taken advantage of and duped, if asked to give up the work products that result from this internal self actualisation, for an ordinary worker’s salary.  The pursuit of autonomy, mastery and purpose is not without personal costs, sacrifices and risks.  It’s hard work.  It’s a path that can go wrong and turn out badly.  You can fail many times, before finally succeeding.  Why should somebody else reap the rewards of success, if the risks and costs are not borne by them?  If you fail in your quest for autonomy, mastery and purpose, an employer imagines that they can simply find another one like you.  You, on the other hand, face an existential crisis.  This explains why so few employers tolerate failure or support an individual as they make missteps, take wrong turnings and eventually find their way.  It’s far easier for an employer to switch horses, when the going gets difficult.

The reality is that if the employer has the choice between earning from the work of an AMP’d up person, or from an automaton that they must micromanage and direct, for roughly the same cost (salary).  They do not want to pay a differential between the two, even though one is clearly more valuable than the other.  The upside of having an AMP’d up person on the payroll is far higher, in terms of potential earnings, so that’s why employers want to employ AMP’d up people at automaton prices.  They both want to pretend that the person is a commoditised and replaceable production unit, but reap the superior rewards of the AMP’d up person’s work products.  This is why the pursuit of autonomy, mastery and purpose, in a business context, is such a bad deal for the employee.  AMP‘d up employees are not adequately compensated, compared to other less AMP’d employees.

Daniel Pink’s utopian workplace motivation solution turns out to be hollow.  It simply cannot exist in a business culture that retains its working assumptions about who, in the hierarchy, gets all the money and power.  In fact, working with autonomy, mastery and purpose is a solution that is wholly incompatible with command and control company hierarchies, as they are known and practised today.  Companies cannot both insist that its employees are free agents and yet demand that the profits accruing from their work products belong solely to the company, due to the “superior” position of the managers and shareholders, in the relationship.  Their claims to superiority are without foundation.  Their capital is valueless without the mastery of their autonomous, purposeful partners.

Results Only Work Environment

A second workplace motivation panacea mentioned in Daniel Pink’s TED talk is ROWE – Results Only Work Environment (  In this human resources ruse, people are encouraged to do whatever it takes to get the work done, trusting their own judgement, organisational skills and priorities, but they only get paid for results.  In other words, the person takes the risks of failure to deliver (which can happen for unforeseen reasons) and the employer is nothing of the sort.  They are a buyer of finished work products and a monopoly buyer at that.

This is very similar to being commissioned to paint a painting for somebody.  You only get paid if the work you do is satisfactory to the commissioner.  Artists, aware that they can be short changed in any number of ways through this arrangement, frequently insist on part payment up front, before commencement and progress payments at agreed stages, for highly ambitious commissions.  The money paid at the end, on completion and acceptance, generally only produces the profit.  Costs are covered far earlier in the commission.

There is a significant danger of undervaluing work results under a ROWE, because it is in the interests of the company paying to pretend you didn’t meet their expectations, met them too late or the results didn’t meet their brief, even if they really did.  There is no third party arbiter, trusted by both parties, to decide such disputes.  For a market to work there needs to be more than one buyer in the market for the work products.  If the work is bespoke, then the price point for the work cannot be found fairly, because there is only one buyer in the market.  Firms that insist on being the sole buyer of work products, under a ROWE arrangement, are actually acting as monopolists, in effect.  The obligation placed on the provider to bring the results of their work to just one business is a difficult one.

Furthermore, if a business is only paying for results, then the price of those results needs to include the cost of the provider’s holidays, sick pay and so on.  This is so that the producer providing the results is not left without cover for life’s unexpected disasters, from which nobody is immune.  Buyers of work products in a ROWE arrangement are typically unwilling to allow a margin to the provider to cover those real world eventualities.

If the employer demands that the employees at their place of work operate under the rules of a ROWE arrangement, it begs the question:  what is the employer actually providing?  It’s probably not better creature comforts and tools than a freelancer can provide for themselves.  It includes an obligation to commute, which isn’t necessary for a freelancer working from their own premises.  Perhaps the employer undertakes to fill your inbox, but that’s based on real world demand for the value you create, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to fill your inbox at all.  Perhaps the employer has a more recognised brand or access to markets through their own connections and reputation, but on what is that reputation based?  It’s based on your work products, of course.

They may claim to be able to aggregate and offer resources to enable your work products to be realised, but are those resources available to you when you need them and under your control to do what you need to do with them, as dictated by your newly found autonomy, or are they controlled?  If you are paid by results, you need to know that you have control over the raw materials and resources that you need to complete that work, or you are in peril.  It seems like ceding control over the inputs to your work can create a problematic situation, when the same provider is valuing and paying for only your finished work products.  You are sandwiched in the middle.  If you are a provider working under a ROWE arrangement, are you an encumbered, constrained agent or one given all you need to actually produce results?

Perhaps the only value of the company, in a ROWE arrangement, is aggregation of talent and resources, which has some value, but also carries with it some significant risks for the provider.  The company’s value could be in articulating a purpose that others can support, but either way, the value has to be balanced against individual contributions from providers.  It can’t be the case that the employer assumes they own the lion’s share of the value created and that the provider’s compensation is incidental.

Just Rewards

When it comes to purpose, most people have a goal of achieving some level of financial independence commensurate with their autonomy and mastery.  Employers, on the other hand, wish to retain the geese that lay the golden eggs.  Consequently, they have a vested interest in keeping their employees financially dependent upon them (except when times get hard, at which time they wish to reserve the right to let their employees go at minimal cost).  Consequently, you have a difference in goals.  Providers wish to earn independence and employers wish to maintain a situation of dependence.

It comes down to the appropriation of value created.  In a business context, if you are reliant on AMP and ROWE ideas, it should be the case that the unexpected, exceptional earnings produced by the work products results in a fair sharing of the value thus earned.  As an independent artist, the ownership of exceptional earnings unquestionably belongs to the artist.  In most business contexts, ownership of exceptional earnings is assumed by the employer.  This is an important difference, where long-lived intellectual property is produced.  An unscrupulous employer can earn many times the fair value of the agreed work products, simply by continuing to exploit the intellectual property.  Musicians of the sixties and seventies that allowed record companies to take ownership of their master tapes for albums that are still in print today learned this to their considerable cost.

Ownership of the full lifecycle earnings that result from work products that are produced autonomously, with mastery and purpose, or which are exchanged under a results only work environment needs to be considered carefully.  Otherwise, the arrangement is not favourable to the provider.  This is one of the reasons why so many artists remain independent.  They retain ownership over the earnings of their intellectual property and work products, over the lifetime of these artefacts.


Motivational speakers speaking about how motivation works, such as Daniel Pink, can produce demotivating feelings in those that are aware of the limitations of the solutions proposed to increase workplace motivation.  What remains unaddressed are the ownership and fairness of returns issues that arise.  Artists have navigated these waters for some time (not always successfully, it needs to be said).  It is only quite recently that these new, experimental, motivational techniques are being applied to the world of employed work.  Unfortunately, it appears to be a poor fit.


Side note:  The music business, according to some reports, is going backwards in respect of autonomy, mastery and purpose and a results orientation.   In the music business today, according to this report, unless you sell your music out to support some corporate brand (thereby at least killing off your autonomy and higher purpose), there is no income for artists to be had.  If that’s the way music fans want it, there will be no new music for sale within the space of a generation.  It’s hard enough for musicians to show up every day to produce their very best music.  Most people in day jobs don’t produce their best work each and every day.  Also, people in day jobs are arguably not as harshly judged on their work’s quality, each and every time they do something new, but musicians are.  It is insulting to make music production a non paying job and still expect the same high quality output to be produced.  If the current broken business models persist, people who are musicians will still apply autonomy, mastery and purpose to the making of their music (as artists), but those that want to consume it won’t be able to have it.  Why should musicians provide it, to enrich others, if they make nothing from it themselves, even if they make music just to experience mastery, autonomy and purpose?  Music fans and music aggregators/distributors need to choose the future of music production that they want and let the musicians know what they decide.  Why is it a commonplace assumption to think that musicians just have to suck up the fact that an income is being denied to them for their work, even though money is still being made through the sale and consumption of music and it’s going somewhere else?

Side note 2:  Standing desks, in corporate settings, are pure theatre, designed solely to ingratiate an employee with management.  It’s an ostentatious way of making people look engaged, energetic, and vibrant, by addressing every business issue, no matter how trivial, with urgency, super-hero tirelessness and a willingness to sacrifice personal comfort for the benefit of the company.  It’s a suck up.  How do we know?  Standing desks did not emerge in genuinely autonomous, mastery oriented and purposeful work settings (like artist’s studios, for example).  I want to see these standing desk users still using them in their mid 50s, prior to their hip replacement, when everything aches, is stiff or creaks.  I don’t think this fad will last.

The corporate theatrics get weirder: . This is an article about an at-the-desk exercise bike.  Firstly, what concentrated, creative, desk work can you really do while pedalling furiously?  If you are doing thinking work, then why be at a desk?  Go for a walk.  This is a non solution to a non problem, but it can make you look good in front of your boss, if that is your goal and purpose, provided the noise of the cycle doesn’t drive your co-workers to homicide.



About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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