The Motivation Trifecta: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

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Retaining good employees is crucial for a successful business, but how do you do it? Well assuming you have the basics of money and security, covered, what motivates a person to stay with an employer? The article below outlines what author Daniel Pink’s thoughts on the motivation are.

Money isn’t the most powerful or effective motivator. Back in the 1970’s, psychologist Edward Deci ran an experiment showing how incentivising students with money to solve puzzles actually made them less interested in working on them after being paid. Meanwhile, another group of students who hadn’t been offered money, worked on the puzzles longer and with more interest. Deci’s work uncovered the powerful and significant difference between extrinsic motivation, the kind that comes from outside sources, and intrinsic motivation, the kind that comes from within yourself.

So how do you attain that intrinsic motivation? Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive, lists three elements of the motivation formula: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In situations where people are paid fairly, this trio drives, engages, and stimulates us to do our best work.

Here’s the breakdown:


Our self-direction is a natural inclination. Pink points to the simple example of how children play and explore all on their own. We’re all built with inner drive.

Deci, and his colleague Richard Ryan, have continued to explore the nature of what’s called self-determination theory, a theory of motivation that takes into account people’s psychological needs. They discovered in a study of workers at an investment bank that managers who offered “autonomy support” — which means helping employees make progress by giving meaningful feedback, choice over how to do things, and encouragement — resulted in higher job satisfaction and better job performance.

Workplaces can support autonomy by giving people real control over various aspects of their work — whether it’s deciding what to work on or when to do it.
We want to get better at doing things. It’s why learning a language or an instrument can be so frustrating at first. If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, your interest flags and you may even give up. A sense of progress, not just in our work, but our capabilities, contributes to our inner drive.

Employers should look at calibrating what people must do by looking at what they can do. If the must-tasks are too difficult, people will become worried and feel out of their league. If the must-tasks are too easy, they’ll will get bored.

The must-tasks should be just right. So Pink concludes that we should work on Goldilocks tasks, which are neither too difficult nor too easy. The trick is not to give tasks fitting a person’s exact capabilities, but to give them space and support to reach a little higher to foster improvement, continual mastery, and growth. What this requires of employers is paying more attention to how employees are doing and feeling about their tasks in order to avoid keeping square Bob or triangle Mary from trying and losing heart at fitting into round tasks.
People who find purpose in their work unlock the highest level of the motivation game. Pink says that it’s connecting to a cause larger than yourself that drives the deepest motivation. Purpose is what gets you out of bed in the morning and into work without groaning and grumbling — something that you just can’t fake.

That also means people who have purpose are motivated to pursue the most difficult problems. Elizabeth Moss Kanter, Professor at Harvard Business School, has formulated her own trio of motivating factors, one of which is meaning, which helps people go the extra mile and stay engaged. “People can be inspired to meet stretch goals and tackle impossible challenges,” she writes, “if they care about the outcome.”

Russell Benaroya, co-founder and CEO of EveryMove, a fitness rewards program, agrees. “We are on a mission to give people a strong voice to show that their healthy lifestyle matters,” he explains. “Employees get up for that in the morning. They overcome obstacles for that. They care about something that is much bigger than themselves.” The benefit that the EveryMove team experiences is the resilience and sustainable fuel to keep moving. “All companies face their own roller coaster of business ups and downs. True purpose allows those swings to create less whiplash and distraction for the team.”

What can employers do? Help employees connect to something larger than themselves. Get them out of mere measurement by numbers and figures, and connect work to people and values. Providing patient photos, for example, to radiologists, who have little direct contact with patients, improved their performance.
Why is the motivation trifecta especially relevant?

According to Pink, the old-school model of carrots and sticks is becoming increasingly outdated, and according to lots of research, just plain wrong.

It makes sense that old-school organisational and personal frameworks of productivity just don’t cut it in this age when knowledge work, creativity, and problem-solving are required to stand out and succeed. Here’s to building more autonomy, mastery, and purpose to produce not just a more productive and effective workforce, but a happier one!