Approaches To Motivation


This post was first published on my business blog, which I’m closing down now that I’ve retired, so I’m archiving some of the better posts to this blog.

Note: I have an update to this post that’s worth reading

When I started managing people one of the first theories that I cam across was Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs:

Maslow’s idea is that people are motivated by satisfying lower-level needs such as food, water, shelter, and security, before they can move on to being motivated by higher-level needs such as self-actualization

Unfortunately it didn’t really work for me as a reliable model of real behaviour.  It was obvious that motivation didn’t really work as a hierarchy, soldiers for example who feel connected to a purpose higher than themselves can be highly motivated even when lacking food, shelter and security.  It’s also worrying that the theory completely ignores relativity, i.e. the fact that hunter gathers can be highly motivated with very low levels of food, shelter and security compared to office workers who are very demotivated.

Dan Pink in his book Drive, provides a more robust model, in his own summary he says:

When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements: 1.Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives. 2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters. 3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

While I like Dan’s Trifecta I’ve found that a lot of people struggle with the words that he uses, in particular, mastery and purpose.  I recently came across another interpretation of the literature that also underpins Dan’s book that describes the Trifecta, Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness.  I’m not sure which I like better and I don’t think either is complete.  Clearly competence and mastery are simillar, but relatedness and purpose aren’t.  My suggestion is to merge and extend, ending up with Steve’s motivation quintet:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose
  4. Relatedness
  5. Sustainable challenge

Taking each of these in turn, with a few nice extracts from the Harvard Business School article that inspired this post.

People feel autonomy when they have a sense of control over their lives, they believe that they have choices, that what they are doing is of their own volition, it’s a powerful motivator.  Some jobs have very little autonomy; in fact some people’s lives don’t, they feel like they are on a treadmill endlessly repeating the same routines.  Providing small areas of autonomy at work can have a big effect.  In my area of work the area most in need to more autonomy are the call centres:

To promote autonomy: Frame goals and timelines as essential information to assure a persons success, rather than as dictates or ways to hold people accountable. Refrain from incentivizing people through competitions and games. Few people have learned the skill of shifting the reason why they’re competing from an external one (winning a prize or gaining status) to a higher-quality one (an opportunity to fulfil a meaningful goal). Don’t apply pressure to perform. Sustained peak performance is a result of people acting because they choose to not because they feel they have to

People like to feel that they are competent at the job they are doing, in fact doing a job without competency is stressful and stress is a powerful demotivator.  But competency isn’t really enough for many people they like to feel that they have mastery, that they are really good at what they do, much better than when they started the job.  Mastery comes through training, from the ability to experiment, makes mistakes, learn from them and improve.  It comes from feedback that helps them understand the job they are doing, that give them the information they need to improve.

To develop peoples competence: Make resources available for learning. What message does it send about values for learning and developing competence when training budgets are the first casualty of economic cutbacks? Set learning goals not just the traditional results-oriented and outcome goals. At the end of each day, instead of asking, What did you achieve today? ask What did you learn today? How did you grow today in ways that will help you and others tomorrow?

People need a purpose in life, a feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves, feeling that their lives have meaning.  Many people fail to find purpose in their lives at work though and have to find it outside of work, from gardening to train spotting hobbies have filled the gap that work leaves.  Fortunately it’s possible to inject purpose into many jobs often by connecting people to a need to serve.  For example Zappos (the online shoe retailer) see’s their purpose as “delivering happiness” and so their call centres (which are not renowned for high levels of motivation) strive to provide the very best customer service.  Their staff are experts in the shoes they sell, see themselves as friendly advisors, are backed up by superb shoe delivery and return logistics.  Zappos offer to pay new employees a bonus to leave after a few months, because they only want people who really want to work there, their staff turnover is incredibly low.

In Susan Fowler’s model of motivation she substitutes relatedness for purpose, but I don’t think they are equivalent.  I think it’s worth adding relatedness as a separate foundation of motivation.  Relatedness is peoples need to care about and be cared about by others, to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives.  One indicator of the power of relatedness comes from studies by Gallop:

Human beings are social animals, and work is a social institution. Long-term relationships are often formed at work — networking relationships, friendships, even marriages. In fact, if you did not meet your spouse in college, chances are you met him or her at work. The evolution of quality relationships is very normal and an important part of a healthy workplace. In the best workplaces, employers recognize that people want to forge quality relationships with their coworkers, and that company allegiance can be built from such relationships.

The development of trusting relationships is a significant emotional compensation for employees in today’s marketplace. Thus, it is easy to understand why it is such a key trait of retention, and is one of the 12 key discoveries from a multiyear research effort by The Gallup Organization. Our objective was to identify the consistent dimensions of workplaces with high levels of four critical outcomes: employee retention, customer metrics, productivity, and profitability.

Susan says this about relatedness:

To deepen relatedness: Validate the exploration of feelings in the workplace. Be willing to ask people how they feel about an assigned project or goal and listen to their response. All behavior may not be acceptable, but all feelings are worth exploring. Take time to facilitate the development of peoples values at work then help them align those values with their goals

Finally we come to ‘sustainable challenge’ which I’ve added to Dan and Susan’s lists.  The two words are important, challenge is essential at work, it provides that sense of achievement that’s so important to motivation.  You feel like you are making progress, that work is worthwhile, that you are applying your mastery successfully.  It’s key though that the challenge is sustainable, and for that it needs to be close to your level of mastery.  Slightly below is fine, this is the kind of challenging work that a craftsman does, slightly above is fine too, it means you are learning, discovering, improving.  Sustainability is critical too, working too many hours, being pushed well outside your level of mastery can be exhilarating in the short term, but soon exhilaration turns to stress and soon after to demotivation and burnout.

For a nice summary of Dan Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose Trifecta take a look at Graham’s recent post.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

1 Response

  1. August 28, 2015

    […] Susan Fowler’s similar, but also flawed, Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness.  I summed up my thoughts on all of these in a recent blog post coming up with my own list; Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose, […]

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