Skip to content
Home » Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and what Self-Determination Theory (SDT) really says

Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and what Self-Determination Theory (SDT) really says

Reading books is sometimes not just for fun; sometimes, you get a connection you need to investigate further. Daniel Pink’s bestselling book “Drive” is somewhere between connection and connector. It’s a book that bridges many huge gaps and brings the vital work of many possibly under-appreciated clinical psychologists into sharp focus.

Two of the psychologists in question are Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Their work in positive psychology on their Self Determination Theory (SDT) is, for me, the beating heart of Drive. This theory conceptualises how our motivation is coloured not just by external factors but by an internal search for meaning, belonging and proficiency. By understanding that we need something more than just external rewards or threats to motivate us.

None of this is probably that surprising for software engineers. We often are motivated by a problem – a need to know. And that is a powerful intrinsic motivation which allows us to demonstrate ourselves in the context of a problem. However, there is a subtlety here which Drive doesn’t address.

Deci and Ryan’s work is indebted to Abraham Maslow (of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs fame), which is indebted to Harry Harlow’s work at the beginning of what is known as humanistic psychology. Deci and Ryan’s work takes front and centre in “Drive” and indeed, Pink interviewed both of them during the book’s writing.

Daniel Pink names the intrinsic motivations: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Deci and Ryan in SDT theory, call them Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. While subtle, the name change appears to be deliberate to convince us that the individual is at the heart of intrinsic motivational factor. It’s at this point that I start to have some doubts. I prefer the original SDT names for these motivations with their hint of the group or team about Relatedness in particular.

Good software engineers often motivate themselves by wanting to show their skills, therefore exhibiting “Automony” and “Competence”. However, they also usually must integrate their work with that of a larger group. That “Relatedness” component will have a feedback effect on motivation. And it’s that component which is often at the heart of conflict in software engineering.

The Group and Locus of Causality

Ryan and Deci’s work, therefore, has depths not necessarily evident in “Drive”. From Deci and Ryan’s 2000 paper:

Within SDT, autonomy refers not to being independent, detached, or selfish but rather to the feeling of volition that can accompany any act, whether dependent or independent, collectivist or individualist.

And then goes on to list research which shows that collective autonomy isn’t a contradiction and is more potent than individual autonomy. Therefore SDT promotes autonomy and relatedness both as individual and as a group.

The paper goes on to say:

The real question concerning nonintrinsically motivated practices is how individuals acquire the motivation to carry them out and how this motivation affects ongoing persistence, behavioral quality, and well-being. Whenever a person (be it a parent, teacher, boss, coach, or therapist) attempts to foster certain behaviors in others, the others’ motivation for the behavior can range from amotivation or unwillingness, to passive compliance, to active personal commitment.

Deci and Ryan show that there is a continuum of motivation and not just a ‘motivated or unmotivated’ state. This continuum relies on where that motivation originates and how it is internalised. This diagram is taken from their paper and shows from left to right how we perceive the motivation and how that related to how we act on it:

Therefore we see traditional motivation (Compliance, External, Rewards and Punishments) leaving an impression of us being ‘externally motivated’ and not necessarily enjoying a task. The further right we travel, we see importance of placing the self at the heart of the motivational story.

Background, Context and Timespan

Another area central to Self-Determination Theory and not present in any of the elements of Drive is how context and background are vital for understanding motivation. As Deci and Ryan’s paper says:

Internalization and integration are clearly central issues in childhood socialization, but they are also continually relevant for the regulation of behavior across the life span. In nearly every setting people enter, certain behaviors and values are prescribed, behaviors that are not interesting
and values that are not spontaneously adopted.

Drive provides a set of exercises for individuals and for your organisation – but these seem little more than collections of advice given by others. What it fails to state is how effective these could be according to context and how these could even potentially be used to manipulate.

Extrinsically motivations can be personally endorsed and this is according to Deci and Ryan:

“the type of extrinsic motivation that is sought by astute socializing agents regardless of the applied domain

In other words, be careful of those who seek to take advantage of your good nature.

Therefore, for me, there is a growth element missing in Pink’s work. He could, at this point, say, for example, “Human Resources departments would do well to understand individual’s backgrounds and needs better when joining an organisation and find a team and/or manager that meshes with their beliefs”. Or suggest that when motivation is missing or absent, there is usually more to it than meets the eye.

Instead, Pink gives us a weak list of things to try without real context.

Again, Self-determination theory on context and background:

SDT suggests turning first to individuals’ immediate social contexts and then to their developmental environments to examine the degree to which their needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness are being or have been thwarted.

The Good and the Bad

What Daniel Pink does well in “Drive” is bring to us the notion that we’re getting motivation wrong in many ways in business and that Taylorist approaches to management need a rethink. The fact that the book brings together many sources, lovingly indexed and referenced, makes the book a handy jumping-off point, and this is precisely how I’ve treated it. Once engaged with the core ideas, none of which are Pink’s own, I’m less interested in learning how to improve motivation in myself or others, but really to get further into the core of motivation and how it can be sustainably integrated.

I take issue with Pink stating ‘open source [software development] depends on intrinsic motivation with the same ferocity that older business models rely on extrinsic motivation”. I’ve contributed to and led open-source projects since the mid-90s and have found that motivation for joining an open-source project is not always simply “wanting to make a better world not controlled by corporations”. And anyway, even if that were a motivation – that itself is not intrinsic. Many open-source projects or open-source supporting companies use a variety of traditional motivational techniques to manage their staff. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. And often, working on open-source is purely an extrinsic motivation which we integrate internally. Self-determination theory’s authors back this view up in this example from their 2000 paper:

Students who do their homework because they personally grasp its value for their chosen career are extrinsically motivated, as are those who do the work only because they are adhering to their parents’ control. Both examples involve instrumentalities rather than enjoyment of the work itself, yet the former case of extrinsic motivation entails personal endorsement and a
feeling of choice, whereas the latter involves compliance with an external regulation. Both represent intentional behavior (Heider, 1958), but they vary in their relative autonomy.


Pink ends Drive with a whimper before getting on to the exercises he says:

“Repairing the mismatch and bringing our understanding of motivation into the twenty-first century is more than an essential move for business. It’s an affirmation of our humanity.”

Despite basing his work on that of many humanistic psychologists, I don’t get a sense that this is attempting to fix anything, it’s simply calling it out. For that, I applaud the book. It is enough that we have this source of information which is truly a treasure trove for further research. However it could do with a human heart.

For example in the conclusion the Self-determination theory paper, Deci and Evans write this:

We found that conditions supportive of autonomy and competence reliably facilitated this vital expression of the human growth tendency, whereas conditions that controlled behavior and
hindered perceived effectance undermined its expression. Subsequently, we investigated the acquisition and regulation of nonintrinsically motivated behaviors and, here too, we found evidence of the dramatic power of social contexts to enhance or hinder the organismic tendency to integrate ambient social values and responsibilities.”

Contexts supportive of autonomy, competence, and relatedness were found to foster greater internalization and integration than contexts that thwart satisfaction of these needs. This latter finding, we argue, is of great significance for individuals who wish to motivate others in a way that engenders commitment, effort, and high-quality performance.

This is nothing less than a call to arms for managers and leaders of all types to understand themselves, their staff and their reasons for doing what they do.