The workplace power of intrinsic motivation

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I’ve written a lot before about managers and styles of management — from why most managers aren’t that effective to the inherent challenges of middle management to the essence of leadership (among many other posts, a lot of which you can find here). I’ve mentioned Daniel Pink before — in this post — as he’s one of the primary thought leaders in the “motivation” space. Simon Sinek might be another one with his whole “starts with why” idea (that’s actually the URL of his website, I think) and I’ve mentioned him too.

As summarized in the IDoneThis blog, the three tenets of intrinsic motivation are:

  • Purpose
  • Autonomy
  • Mastery

Several studies over time have shown that intrinsic motivation is actually a stronger force than extrinsic motivation — provided, of course, that a base-line compensation model is there (relative to the area where you live).

Now think about how most companies reward people: work hard and you could get promoted and thus make more money. That’s extrinsic. The focus is thus wrong.

Classic management advice and approaches tend to look at people as resources, and how you can maximize them. That’s fine if you’re discussing natural gas. If you’re discussing a human with a family, it’s a bit dehumanizing. And if you’re doing that + trying to motivate simply through extrinsic measures, you’re probably like a dog chasing its tail.

Think about how this could be better:

  • Purpose: This goes back to Sinek’s ideas. (His other idea, “Leaders eat last,” basically goes back to Jesus, so I try to avoid analyzing that one.) If you were to make a list of the last 10–20 things you did at work, could you attach a why to more than 5 of them? Play this game: make a list of the last 10 things you did at work. Try to attach a why to each one. You can’t use these expressions: “Someone above me told me to” or “It was revenue-facing” or “It had to be done.” It had to be done isn’t really an answer, because nothing really has to be done, at the base level of it. I’m probably getting off-track, but the point is: do you understand the true purpose of what you’re doing? Has that been conveyed to you? I can tell you that I’ve been working for 12 years, give or take, and I’ve had at most 1–2 managers that have ever conveyed purpose beyond “Someone else wants this done.”
  • Autonomy: To establish this, you need to reduce command-and-control management, which is very hard for most people to do. You ostensibly need to say “In certain contexts outside of absolute last-second decision-making, hierarchy is not important.” That’s somewhat of the idea behind holacracy, which has been made popular (fashionable?) at places like Zappos. The idea of “autonomy” here refers to people being able to offer their own perspectives and insights as opposed to just taking the orders of those above. This is correlated with the idea of “managing up” (pleasing your bosses) vs. “managing down” (helping others to discover their best selves). The simple fact of the matter is this: people that “manage up” tend to get noticed and promoted more, hence more people want to follow that approach. People that “manage down” can sometimes be seen as misguided — after all, in most cultures, people are an interchangeable asset.
  • Mastery: Mostly this speaks to the idea of training. Absolutely boggles my mind that training isn’t a bigger deal for most places. It’s literally the single-biggest difference between “a great company” and a “very good one.” There are companies that focus on training and do it well — and there is an argument to be made that small-to-mid-size companies can’t afford it, as their HR functionality (where training tends to reside) needs to focus on day-to-day things — but oftentimes, training is an afterthought. Back in summer 2013, I was working for McKesson. That’s a huge company with a lot of money. I went to a bowling and happy hour event with some people from there, and a lady tied to training told me, “Don’t ever do training. If a recession hits, you’re the first to go.” I’ve heard that from others. But people want knowledge and new chances to gain it! The most curious people you have are often your best!

The whole thing can seem misguided, right?

So your goal is to develop curious intrinsically-motivated learners and achievers, right?

But that’s really hard to do when you have deliverables, deadlines, things to analyze, meetings to run in and out of, and OMG you’re so busy.

Fact of the matter is, most people don’t stop and think about questions like this: “Well, what could I do as a leader that would make my team better down the road?”

Instead it’s very much now-now-now.

The types of guys/women who do stop and think about those questions are guys like Simon Sinek — and they don’t work in an office every day grinding on deliverables. They fly around speaking to people. In a way, while they’re intelligent, their content is devoid of context. They don’t work in the same way that many others have to.

Can anything be done?

Sure, although it requires a change of your own personal context and an ability to think about what you’re doing and accomplishing day-to-day.

Instead of “this deliverable to that deliverable” and “this meeting to that meeting” and “this conference call to that conference call,” think instead like this:

  • How can I communicate the purpose of the work we’re doing, even if the purpose is really just to make more money?
  • How can I empower people on my team to lead their own processes and work?
  • What skills do my people need to be even better at their work?
  • How can I explain the context of what’s going on while also protecting any proprietary information relative to my level?
  • Every day / week, what is my goal for my team and myself?

It’s hard — and it’s not the standard American business model — but it can be done.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and I’m a member of the BlogPoets network. My deal: I try to think differently about work, the future of work, leadership, management, marketing, organizational development, customer experience, and more. I’m out here trying to chase real professional connection and collaboration, not just 200K page views. Anyone want to talk? (I also do freelance and ghostwriting work, if anyone’s into that.)

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