3 Ingredients of Intrinsic Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Managers, Are You Sabotaging Motivation at Work?

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By Janet Choi

3 Ingredients of Intrinsic Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

Given a choice between solving puzzles for free or for pay — which would you pick?

If you want to stay motivated and solve more puzzles, the surprising thing is that you should do them for free.

In the early 1970s, psychologist Edward Deci wanted to study how money affects motivation. In one experiment, he paid one group $1 (that’s about $6 today) for each puzzle solved within three sessions, while the control group received no payment. In the middle of each session was an eight-minute free period in which people could continue puzzling, read magazines, or otherwise spend the time how they wished.

It was the paid group who chose to spend less time working on puzzles in the free periods. The extrinsic monetary reward made them lose intrinsic motivation, where the reward is the activity itself.

Over forty years later, managers still rely on the old model of dangling external rewards like money and prestige to motivate their people — but in today’s era of knowledge work, this model is increasingly misguided. If you think your people are going to continue to put in their best efforts with monetary rewards, you’re sabotaging the most powerful sources of motivation.

Instead, as Daniel Pink explains in his book, Drive, the three basic sources of motivation — autonomy, mastery, and purpose — come from within.

While this assumes fair compensation as a baseline — the fact is that in harnessing intrinsic motivation, you feed deep-seated human psychological needs, and that’s incredibly compelling. Here’s a basic refresher on these three limbs of intrinsic motivation and what managers can do to help people become more motivated, productive, and happy.

Autonomy: Help people direct themselves

People want to feel like they have a choice in what they’re doing, that they’re in some way determining their own fate rather than having to follow scripts set out by others.

As a manager, you hold the keys to increase this sense of choice by providing what Deci and psychologist Richard Ryan call “autonomy support.” A major departure of the command-and-control style of management, this involves acknowledging people’s perspectives, encouraging choice and self-initiation, providing relevant information, and being responsive rather than dictatorial.

The effects are great. In a 2004 study, Deci and Ryan discovered that employees that receive autonomy support are better performers, and happier to boot.

Provide some choice over how to do work and support people with the frequent feedback and resources they need to get the job done. At companies like Reddit, Buzzfeed, and Foursquare, they use a system that originated at Google called Google Snippets to distribute information across the whole company on what people are working on — helping people stay on the same page. This kind of transparency gives autonomy to people to do their best work instead of having to stop and hunt down the information they need or wait to receive it from gatekeepers.

Mastery: Invest in your people.

Getting better at something is inherently satisfying and motivating. Making progress at learning a language or an instrument, for example, fuels the fire to keep getting better. If you feel like you’re getting stuck and running in place, failing to grow in some meaningful way, it’s natural for interest to fade and effort to flag.

Failing to capitalize on the motivational benefits of improvement and mastery is a major mistake. More and more, however, employers aren’t making the effort to train, grow, and broaden their employees’ skills. Such investment has a mutual benefit: investing in your people is a way to build for an organization’s long-term future.

Companies like Spotify and Wistia invest in their people with deliberate programs to teach new skills and build on existing ones. Wistia runs a code school to teach employees how to code using real-world problems. At Spotify, they believe in three-dimensional development, that you can develop in more ways than moving up the corporate ladder. They provide structured opportunities to learn at trainings, workshops, and teach their co-workers.

You don’t have to start a whole new training scheme to help people gain mastery at work. Provide coaching and frequent feedback to encourage learning and continuous improvement.

Purpose: Connect work to a greater cause

Having a larger purpose to work towards sounds almost like a luxury in the world of work — but it’s the deepest well of motivation. Purpose gives you a reason to stretch, explore, and keep at it. Contrast that with the disconnection many people feel about their job — at best, you’re in it for the paycheck — but if you don’t know why you’re doing something, what will drive you onwards and upwards?

As a manager, you want to help your team get up in the morning and feel like going to work because they have a purpose to work towards. It can be easy to forget about purpose as you get stuck in project details and analyzing metrics. Consider how often you communicate and connect work to purpose, values, and people. Help employees figure out the high-level “why” question. What’s the point of doing this task? Who does it affect? Why does it matter?

Nearly ten years ago, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos sent out an email to employees, investors, and partners in which he explained that the purpose of a company like Zappos wasn’t to maximize short-term profits. It’s to “build a company culture and consumer brand that is centered around service, not the shoes or the handbags.” In continuing to reinforce and develop its inspiring purpose, Zappos motivates its people not just to get up in the morning and come to work with fewer grumbles — but to build something great.

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What drives our best work is intrinsic motivation, which sustains more deeply than any external reward can. As Pink writes:

Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.

People often fantasize about dream jobs, but often there are intrinsically motivating things we can do as individuals and managers to bring out and nourish autonomy, mastery, and purpose to turn a bunch of tasks and to-do lists into something more meaningful.

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