Community Engagement and Daniel Pink

“I am only interested in what works.” That’s what Daniel Pink says about workforce, schools, artists, everything. This author of A Whole New Mind and Drive talked to a crowd of people convened by the Patterson Foundation around their initiative on Cultural Connections with Students. The studies and the data generated through this initiative are compelling: for anything other than simple, repetitive work, the carrot and stick approach does not work. The science of motivation seems to show this with certainty. Still many policymakers, public and private, seem unconvinced (think about the current system for incentivizing teachers). What struck me about Pink’s message on motivation is that it seems like it also applies to the very nature of engagement and community. Pink shared research on artists and creativity that showed that uncommissioned work is markedly more creative than work that is commissioned. I concluded that with the uncommissioned work the artist found their inspiration from within; he/she OWNED the process and the product differently. The artist was more genuinely engaged. We know that an engaged community, one where there is a web of relationships characterized by personal investment and reciprocity, is a community that enjoys a higher level of productivity and thriving.

Pink offers three elements that truly motivate and generate engagement: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. I will focus on Autonomy for this blog. Community thriving generated through the genuine engagement of community members is like the uncommissioned art – it is not dictated, managed or controlled, and as such it is more robust. It is through self-direction of community members, autonomy, that it occurs.

Governments and funders seldom heed Pink’s powerful recommendations. The inclination to manage, often micro-manage, seems too great. In the context of community this often demonstrates itself through a lack of faith in the wisdom and capacities of residents to be the first investors in solutions and approaches they know best because they are closest to them. Understanding what motivates or drives people matters for our kids, their teachers, our workplaces and for our neighborhoods. Let’s shift our thinking to reflect the science and a different approach to motivation for the sake of community.