On Motivation

Despite working in different roles and in different organizations, questions around motivation seem to be asked consistently. How do we motivate our workforce? How can I stay motivated about my work? Why are some people more motivated than others?

My thinking on the subject was radically changed a number of years ago when I first read a book called Drive by Daniel Pink. It's a Gladwell-esque look at the topic of motivation and is a book I find myself reflecting on often and recommending to people regularly (I own two copies and both are leant out right now).

Traditional business practises often fail to understand that people are driven by intrinsic motivation. Management attempts to motivate people using carrots and sticks under the presumption that people are little more than livestock that just need to be herded in the right direction. In Drive, Pink argues that this is not just ineffective but actually detrimental to the engagement and productivity of a workforce¹. In fact, management's role should not be to get people to work, it should be to let people work.

As evidence, we can look at one of the many examples of people doing "work" without any external pressures. Take for instance open source development. Developers in paying development jobs go home after work and do more development without any promise of salary, bonus, performance review, or promotion. Why is this the case and what can learn from it to improve our workplace? Pink identifies three factors we need to be present in our work for us to feel motivated to do something: autonomy, purpose, and mastery. When these needs are met, people are more motivated, engaged, and productive.


Autonomy is the ability to make our own decisions about what we do. It is the antithesis of micro-management. When people are given the freedom to apply their own skills and experience to solve a problem instead of being prescribed a solution, they feel greater ownership of the outcome and more engagement in the process.

Allowing autonomy for employees involves trust and a relinquishing of control but is not meant to encourage anarchy. A task is still bounded by constraints and expectations are still set for what is to be delivered but the how of that delivery should be left to the person or team doing the work. The more latitude we have in the solving of the problem itself, the more motivated we are to work on it.


If the purpose of a task is clear, it encourages quality. We must be able to understand why we are doing something and see its value in order to want to deliver our best. We want to believe that we are contributing to something worthwhile that is bigger than ourselves.

It is important that the purpose of the work be felt in a personal way and not just described in vague notions of it being "good" or "serving the user/client". Purpose can't just be handed down as a corporate edict, it must visible in the decisions that are made and the actions taken in the environment around us.


We feel rewarded for working on a task when we can see that we are gaining some level of mastery by doing it. We want to work on things that will improve our skills and challenge us in new and different ways. In ideal cases where the difficulty of a job and the environment we have to work on it are optimal we can achieve "flow", which is a state known to confer major benefits for productivity and enjoyment.

Tasks that are too simple or repetitive don't offer opportunities for growth and so are less appealing. While not everything we need to do can be perfectly tuned for our mastery needs, a role that provides more opportunity for personal growth is far more appealing than one that doesn't.

What can we do?

Back when I wrote about delivering value, I discussed the need for a team lead to multiply value by having a positive effect on all of their team members. To me, creating an environment where all of these factors are present is the single most important way to do this. If you are in a position where you can help shape the environment for a team, I strongly encourage you to consider what level of autonomy, purpose, and mastery your team members have and how it can be increased.

For every one of us, though, I think it's important to look at how well our needs in these areas are being met. We are all responsible for performing our jobs to the best of our ability and slogging through work without being engaged isn't productive or healthy. If necessary, we need to push to have these needs recognized and find ways to carve out more autonomy, purpose, or mastery where we can. For me, in writing articles like this I have the autonomy of dictating the topic and schedule, a purpose in sharing knowledge and ideas, and am gaining mastery in writing and communication skills. It's not explicitly in my job description to do so but I'm driven purely by my own motivation while still delivering value to the organization.

Finally, if you've made it this far I strongly recommend reading Drive. It goes into much more detail and offers evidence to back up the claims I'm making. You can watch the author give a TED talk on the subject or see an animated synopsis.

¹ I'm cherry-picking a bit here. There are cases where external motivators are beneficial to productivity but they are where tasks are generally simple and routine. When tasks require problem solving or creativity (as ours do), intrinsic motivation has a far more positive effect.