Daniel Pink: How Purpose Drives Behavior

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Drive" by Daniel H. Pink. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is purpose in the context of motivation? How does having purpose motivate behavior?

According to Daniel Pink, purpose is the third pillar of his Motivation 3.0 framework. In the context of motivation, purpose is a deep, underlying reason why you perform a behavior or engage in an activity. A particularly common and especially motivating purpose is helping other people.

In this article, we’ll consider the role of purpose in motivating behavior.

What Is the Role of Purpose in Motivating Behavior?

According to Daniel Pink, purpose is an integral component of intrinsic motivation. People are wired to want to help other people – it may be part of our evolution, selecting for people who do something beyond themselves.

In the absence of outward-looking purpose, people can become anxious or depressed. And if people blindly profit goals, at the expense of building meaningful relationships and achieving purpose, they may regret their emptiness when it’s far too late to change course.

Data suggests that today’s workforce is feeling an increasing need for purpose:

  • Volunteerism rates are increasing rates, and this is correlated with increasing levels of worker disengagement. This suggests volunteering nourishes people in ways that today’s work does not.
  • Workers rate nonmonetary factors like “giving back to society through work” as more important rewards than money.
  • After the 2008 recession, a set of MBAs decided to institute an MBA Oath, centered around “serving the greater good by bringing people and resources together.”

Studies also show that acknowledging purpose makes people work harder and perform efficiently. In an experiment with university fundraisers, the group that was read stories about how raised funds benefited students worked harder and doubled the amount of money raised.

Here’s how to promote purpose in the workplace:

  • When discussing goals of management, think beyond sterile words like “value” and “differentiation.” Reach for deeper ideals like honor, truth, justice, and beauty.
  • Use the pronoun test to gauge your work environment – do people describe the company in terms of “we,” or in terms of “they?”
  • Always explain why something needs to be done. This prevents work from feeling purposeless.
  • Donate some company profits to charity, since spending money on others seems to increase our well-being. Even better, give employees autonomy over deciding where they want to send their share of the donation pool.
  • Combine purpose with autonomy: give workers 20% time to work on a socially meaningful project. 
Daniel Pink: How Purpose Drives Behavior

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  • Why you may be feeling unmotivated and unsatisfied at work and in life
  • Why financial rewards aren't enough to keep employees motivated anymore
  • The three components of intrinsic motivation

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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