What Every Manager Should Know About Motivation (and how the pandemic is proving it)

Intrinsic motivation beats extrinsic motivation for non-routine tasks or, to put it another way, ditch the carrot and stick unless you are trying to move a donkey!

Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – by Daniel Pink, one of my favourite management books, makes this point.

The book was first published in Great Britain in 2010 and I find it surprising that the key insights – based on a sound evidence base developed over many years – are still not well understood or implemented in many organisations. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, because our underlying assumptions about how the world works are deeply embedded and often not even acknowledged. All you have to do to increase motivation and productivity is reward the good and punish the bad (carrot and stick). Right?

Wrong! It turns out that reward and punishment (external or extrinsic motivators) only work for rule-based, routine, boring tasks and, even then, Daniel Pink says it’s important to explain why the task is necessary, acknowledge it’s boring and let people do it in their own way.

For most jobs today, and increasingly more tasks in the workplace, which are non-routine, involving creativity, interest and self-direction, we need to understand people’s intrinsic desires and motivators.

Daniel Pink found the key motivating factors to be:

  • Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives
  • Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

My simple mnemonic to remember this is AMP (the unit of electrical current) – plug in and switch on intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

The problem with an attempt to use external, carrot-and-stick motivation (apart from the fact that it doesn’t work well) is that, when used inappropriately, it actually decreases motivation and performance.

As a result of the pandemic, many organisations have been forced into conducting a massive experiment in working from home and with reduced supervision in all locations. The best organisations have supported and trusted their people to work with increased autonomy and flexibility. Although it will be some time before the research has been completed, early indications are that motivation, productivity and well-being have increased in many cases, sometimes contrary to expectations.

“… the pandemic has changed the mindset of senior leaders across all sectors. The myth that a manager has to be physically present in a room to properly manage their team has been busted. Working at home has been proved to be very productive and more inclusive – people with disabilities, childcare responsibilities, even those with long commutes, have felt more able to work. “The barriers have now gone. You can work from a home that is modified to your physical needs.” Ref: CMI – Digital, flexible, staggered: the inside story of the new workplace.

Of course, working from home is not possible for many jobs and there are issues to manage and overcome, but I believe we’ll learn more in the months ahead that will support the key message of Drive.

As managers, we need to concern ourselves “less with the external rewards an activity brings and more with the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.” We need to tap into people’s intrinsic motivation to allow and encourage them to do their best work, driving increased satisfaction and performance. How? By creating workplace environments characterised by autonomy, mastery and purpose.