Switch and Shift’s Five Questions with Dan Pink



A few years ago, I read a business book that made a lasting impression on me: DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink. How big an impression? When Shawn and I created the Business Heretic’s Bookstore last year, we listed this book first. And it still holds that spot today, despite the ongoing additions. Yes, it’s that heretical.

At the time I had a question or two, though, so I asked Dan: Is there a “sales pro’s exception” to the idea that we are not best motivated by money? Maybe the rest of us are best driven to excel by higher considerations than a big, fat commission check or bonus at the end of a job well done. But perhaps sales folk are different animals than the rest of us, working under entirely different rules.*

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to ask this of Dan. He heard the question enough that he didn’t have to look far at all for the topic of his next book, To Sell Is Human.

I caught up with Dan recently to ask him five questions. Let me share his insight with you now.



Ted: The title of your latest book, To Sell Is Human, strikes me as a challenge. After all, aren’t most people intimidated by work in sales? Isn’t that why companies pay rainmakers the big bucks – because their talents are so rare? Or is that merely a common misperception you set out to dispel in the book?

Dan: As you say, there are lots of myths about sales that I set out to dispel — and one of them is the myth of “the natural”. We have this notion that some people are “born” salespeople — and, by extension, that certain types of people do it best. That’s far from the truth. For instance, many of us believe that extraverts make the best sales people.

But new research from Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School calls that into question. In his research, which I write about here, he found that strong extraverts were only slightly better at sales than strong introverts. Why? Strong extraverts can talk too much and listen too little, and overwhelm people with their forceful personalities.

The people who did the best — by far — were the “ambiverts,” those in the middle. These folks, who are somewhat introverted and somewhat extraverted, are the most attuned and therefore make the best salespeople.

What ought to be heartening is that most of us are neither strong introverts nor strong extraverts. Most of us are ambiverts, which suggests that most of us are reasonably well-positioned to sell effectively.

A couple of more points on this. First is the idea that there are some people who “could sell anything”. Nearly every accomplished salesperson I talked with refuted this idea. Today, expertise matters more than ever. And the best way to develop expertise is to be genuinely interested in what you’re selling so you’ll take the time to do the hard work expertise requires. The idea that someone will feel the same intensity about selling aircraft parts as he does about selling women’s undergarments or Florida time shares seems silly.

Second is the idea the whole idea of “the natural”. We don’t describe people as “natural violinists” or “natural third basemen” or “natural investment bankers”. It takes a heckuva lot of hard work to get good at those jobs. Same with sales.


Ted: Speaking of pay: In Drive, you made a compelling case that financial incentive for performance is at best a clunky tool. More accurately, research shows it’s just plain wrong-headed. Does your new book build upon that in any way?

Dan: A little. The core idea in DRIVE is that “if-then” rewards — “If you do this, then you get that” — are effective for routine, mechanical, algorithmic tasks but less effective for more complex, creative, and conceptual work.

As sales grows more sophisticated, I think we have to call into question the idea that sales commissions — in some sense, the classic “if-then” reward — are the only way to motivate a sales force.

As readers will see in the book, there are lots of companies eliminating sales commissions and getting great results. That said, it really depends on the company and its goals. My own view isn’t that everyone should get rid of commissions. I simply believe we need to challenge the orthodoxy that commissions are the only — or even necessarily the best — way to compensate sales professionals.


Ted: Have circumstances actually changed in the reality of selling – for instance, your claim that even parents are in sales when they try to motivate their kids to study? Or is it rather that we were all always in sales, and in your book you explain how?

Dan: I’m convinced that at the workplace at least the reality has changed significantly. We have survey research showing that American workers are spending about 40 percent of their time on the job — 24 minutes of every hour — convincing, persuading, and influencing others. I call this “non-sales selling”. That’s huge amount of time. Toss in the 15 million people in traditional sales — and that represents a big chunk of what all workers do today.

It wasn’t always this way. Three big changes moved us in this direction. First, we’ve got a lot more small entrepreneurs. And as you know, entrepreneurs sell all the time. Second, skills on the job have become less segmented and more elastic — which means workers have to draw on a wider repertoire of abilities, which almost always includes sales and non-sales selling. Third, the fastest growing job categories in the US are education and health services — or what I call “Ed-Med”. Those jobs are all about non-sales selling — getting students, patients, and others to change their behavior in some way. So like it or not, we’re all in sales now.


Ted: What companies did you find are doing things differently, and reaping outsized rewards as a result?

Dan: Here are two of my favorites: Atlassian and Palantir. Both are technology companies.  Atlassian does more than $100 million a year in sales. Palantir does about $300 million a year in sales. Yet neither company has any salespeople! How is it possible — in, say, Palantir’s case — to have a quarter-of-a-billion-dollars in sales without salespeople? When you ask them, they give you a Zen-like answer: “Nobody’s in sales because everyone’s in sales. Sales isn’t anyone’s job because it’s everyone’s job.”


Ted: What takes your new book from “good read” to “must implement at our company, now”? For individuals, what takes it from “interesting” to “transformative?

Dan: The animating ideas in the book are: 1. Like it or not, we’re all in sales now. 2. Because of changes in the balance of information between buyer and seller, however, sales isn’t what it used to be. That makes it a good read — and quite interesting.

That’s only one-third of the book.

The rest harvests a rich trove of social science that shows us how to get better at selling on this remade terrain. Readers will learn the three foundational qualities that have become essential in moving others — Attunement, Buoyancy, and Clarity. They’ll also learn the three tactical skills — to pitch, to improvise, and to serve. And the book has about 70 tools, tips, and exercises that build on social science to give people practical ways to get better.


*Want more Daniel Pink? You’ll enjoy Does Money Really Motivate Sales Stars?

Art by ReaperwithHips

Ted Coiné is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership and Management Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership put him in a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which he co-authored with Mark Babbitt. An inspirational speaker and popular blogger, Ted is a pioneer of the Human Side of Business (#humanbiz) movement. He is also a serial business founder and three-time CEO. When not speaking at conferences and corporate functions, Ted advises CEOs on how to become Truly Social Leaders, or “Blue Unicorns” as they put it in A World Gone Social, in order to bring their companies into the Social Age. Ted’s advice: “Change is only scary if it’s happening to you. Instead, bring the change your competitors dread. That is something only a Social Age business leader can accomplish.”

  • http://www.bensimonton.com Ben Simonton (@BenSimonton)

    Why did you not talk with Edward Deci and Richard Ryan? Pink is good at writing and selling books, but the knowledge he presents comes from others and they are the only ones with in depth understanding of the issues.

    Best regards, Ben

  • http://www.switchandshift.com Ted Coine

    Ben, Thank you for the suggestions. I will take your advice and reach out to both of those great thinkers.

    As for your remarks on Dan, I’d like to provide a counterpoint for you. When a talented and popular writer tackles a subject, distilling research from diverse sources into a coherent book that is read by tens or hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people, many of them business leaders who may go on to implement some of the ideas he shares… that is a service in its own right. Whether Dan is leading his own research efforts or sharing the best of others, his writing is moving the art and science of management (and in this case, at times of self-management) forward in a highly commendable way. I don’t think it’s appropriate to disparage such work.

    We all carry cultural baggage with us that does more harm than good. One old saw that I can’t stand is, “Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, write.” (Or maybe that’s the other way around). As a doer, teacher, and writer, I outright reject that whole notion. Imagine a world without teachers? We’d still be living in caves.

    Writers teach in an extended format. Dan Pink is one of the best teachers I’ve had. I’m delighted to be able to share his lessons with this League of Extraordinary Thinkers!

  • http://www.bensimonton.com Ben Simonton (@BenSimonton)


    I apologize for having in any way disparaged Dan or his work. That was certainly not my intent and I totally agree that we need teachers and others who disseminate the knowledge gained by others – very honorable professions.

    I do tend to be blunt and that was my error in this case. My background in nuclear power and engineering did not serve to develop tact.

    I have read Pink’s book and read the work of Deci and Ryan, what they term Self-Determination Theory.

    Best regards, Ben

  • http://www.switchandshift.com Ted Coine


    Thank you. I will defend my friends, and my guests (to this blog, for instance), with my dying breath.

    Having said that, let me also say this: I thrive on a vigorous debate! You may have been gruff,* but you were also thought-provoking. The last thing any leader should ever want is to surround him/herself with likeminded individuals, and operate without challenge. That is a recipe for groupthink and, thus, disaster on an epic scale.

    I don’t know how Dan will feel about it should he visit this comment section, but I enjoyed our exchange :) You’re an important member of our community.

    *One of my best friends from childhood, still a best friend today, is an engineer. I get it.

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