I’m an admirer of Daniel Pink’s work, especially his landmark book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I’m a big believer in taking lessons from this sort of literature and finding ways to apply them in libraries. This is no exception; motivation and morale have been top of mind for me lately. As we emerge from a worldwide pandemic, many library workers are facing the reality that we aren’t returning to the way things were before the pandemic. Instead, new and different ways of running the library will be developed. Sometimes, this can be exciting news. Other times, it’s demoralizing. The job moving forward isn’t the job many signed up for and enjoyed.

As we move forward, I think that libraries can incorporate Pink’s lessons on motivation into a healthier, happier workplace. You can watch a brief summary of his theories here:

Much of Pink’s work focuses on the distinction between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. While traditional wisdom focuses on extrinsic motivators such as salary and bonuses, Pink argues that other factors are more important to determine what motivates workers in a digital economy.

Pink’s three elements that motivate people are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These three things account for seemingly illogical behavior among workers. Pink points out that these motivators are more prevalent than ever in a digital economy, and are responsible for many different initiatives, from relaxed workplace standards at companies like Google, to the rise of Wikipedia, to people learning musical instruments in their spare time. Many of these counterintuitive behaviors stem from the three motivators.

Autonomy. People want to control the work that they do. In an industrial economy, with factory work and mechanical level labor, it made sense for bosses to watch workers closely to ensure the desired outcomes from the work. But Pink argues that self-directed work more clearly motivates workers in today’s economy that relies on creativity and idea generation and complex problem-solving.

Mastery. People want to be good at their work, and given the chance they will acquire the skills necessary to be so. Mastery relies on the concept of continuous improvement in the pursuit of excellence. Pink believes that driven workers strive for improvement for its own sake, not for an external reward but for internal satisfaction.

Purpose. People want to do their work to serve a higher purpose. This extends beyond the profit incentive. Pink observes that corporations driven by a profit incentive generally have poor customer service, are prone to ethical lapses, and have unhappy workers. In today’s economy, it’s the businesses that can express a higher purpose that attract workers who are excited to do their work and bring their creative best.

The great thing about libraries is that they have great purpose. It’s easy to connect the dots between the library’s values and the work library workers do: we serve our communities and do our best to live up to ideals of equity, inclusion, and service. I’ve written before about Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why,” and I think this is the same concept. The library’s WHY must be authentic, and that means a clear expression of the WHY and a realistic way to live by it.

Libraries have an opportunity to infuse autonomy and mastery into their workplaces as well. This might look like additional latitude in the development of programs, ample training opportunities, strong feedback loops to determine success and implementation of iterative processes for continuous improvement. There are many opportunities for libraries to make changes in their approach as we emerge from the pandemic. I can’t help but be excited at the possibilities. It’s going to take some creative thought, collaboration between workers and management, and the implementation of library values throughout the workplace. But the upside is tremendous: a workplace where workers feel fulfilled and happy. Happy library workers will provide much better service to the community. And that’s worth a lot of risk and work to make happen.