3 Missing Elements in Dan Pink’s Motivation Theory

Laura Crenshaw
2 min readDec 22, 2021


Image by Rodion Kutsaiev

My young business is like a sapling on the forest floor. We’re tiny, straining, struggling upward daily, desperate to catch some of that nutritious sunlight we hear so much about.

To avoid the one-man-band problem, my business mentor suggested I try something called “fractional teams”. This means instead of looking for full-time business partners (who can’t sustainably contribute without payroll), I gathered a few dozen people with diverse expertise, all contributing 2–5 hours/week. My job is to inspire both my team and my clients (aspiring authors) to take passionate, persistent action.

Back in business school, I was taught Dan Pink’s wildly popular motivation theory, which states that to stay motivated, people need three things:

Autonomy — The power to direct your own work and make meaningful decisions.

Mastery — Opportunity to get better at something over time. Feeling yourself grow.

Purpose — Desire to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

Shortly after gathering my fractional team, I lost a talented client to the insufficient motivation monster, I was discouraged. So I took a hard look at motivation research. What can I do better as a coach? I asked myself.

Shortly thereafter, my team also started struggling, despite the fact that I intentionally built an empowered organization appealing directly to Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

All teammates are wild about our company’s mission. They universally reported a strong sense of Purpose.

I gave them Autonomy, with budgets, decision-making power in their role, and let them pick their own titles.

Opportunities for Mastery were abundant. I provided coaching, encouragement, constructive and carefully-paced feedback, and literally offered to reimburse any online training people want and finish.

The result? My entire team was very happy, but not productive.

After giving our productivity crisis serious reflection, I’ve concluded that Dan Pink’s motivational theory is designed to fix motivational problems for corporate employees in old, bloated, top-heavy organizations. Small start-ups are suffering for entirely different reasons! My infant team is desperate for three things:

Clarity —Point them at one thing. Don’t let them forget. Don’t let them switch tasks until they finish it.

Urgency — The only thing worse than a deadline is no deadlines at all.

Efficiency —To get good work, give good tools. Never ask fragile teams to “get scrappy” or “DIY” critical tasks.



Laura Crenshaw

CEO of Mythulu | Entrepreneur, Novelist & Fire Spinner 🔥 | Passionate about the economics of art.