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Intrinsic Motivation, Or the Inherent Joy of Doing

“Make the right things easy and the wrong things hard to do.” – Kathy Sierra

In this Wisdom for Work episode, my colleagues Jen Cody, Chris VandenBrink, Jim Marsden, and Andy Crissinger, gather around the question: As a leader, how can you engage your team to bring out their best?

In Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, he identified meaning, mastery, and autonomy as the three key components of human motivation. When these things are present, we are drawn to do our best work. It presents us with a way of understanding intrinsic human motivation as contrasted with extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is especially characteristic in older styles of management, such as the “carrot and stick” form of management where we dangle a reward and/or threaten a punishment to get people to perform. 

Meaning (or, Purpose) refers to one’s understanding and resonance with company values and vision, as well as those with one’s team and one’s self. A felt sense of belonging is a big part of finding meaning in work. We want to know that our work matters. People define “what matters” differently of course, so one person may be intrinsically motivated by working on problems that will help solve big human issues while others may be motivated by seeing how their work impacts the lives of their teammates.

Mastery refers to the goals we set and are aiming for and involves rich feedback. That feedback involves recognition as well as the places where we need coaching to develop our skill sets further. Mastery is the sense of continuing to grow in ways that matter to us. Without room to grow and get better, we can stagnate, get bored, etc.

Autonomy comes from the clarity of our roles in respect to our teams, as well as expectations for us, our teams, and the company at large. With a growing sense of autonomy, we know what we have ownership over, what we can delegate, and rely on strong communication with our teams and cross-functionally. Autonomy is about self-direction. As adults, we generally want to feel like we have the ability to choose our path to work on what excites us most. Where do you have the ability to choose and self-direct?

What intrinsically drives our employees/team members is unique/bespoke to each individual on the team. Yet, knowing these three major areas can help us think more effectively about how to bring out the best in each individual.

We can think about Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose and knobs that can be dialed in to create a situation most conducive to bringing out the best in individual team members, notes Andy Crissinger, Reboot’s Director of Coaching. “Sometimes I use the metaphor of a guitar amplifier which contains various knobs that we can use to “dial up” the sound we want,” he says, while working within the boundaries of what’s possible given organization needs and planned commitments. “For instance, if we see an individual’s engagement slipping, we can start playing with the different dials to see if we can draw more on what intrinsically motivates them.”

When it comes to drawing on intrinsic motivation, you have to know your people and what makes them tick. What moves them? This is where an Operators Manual exercise can be utilized. It’s a great tool to use with your team to learn more about how they work best and what they need when they are not at their best. 

Another area to zoom in on with folks is asking them to share “peak experiences” from their work and life to discover when they were at their best. Each of these things will give you clues about the unique motivation “fingerprint” of the individuals on your team.

Other frameworks and topics that will help managers are covered in this episode and can be found more in-depth in the following posts or podcast recordings: 


Connect. Think. Lead. Adapted from the forward I wrote to a friend’s new book… Connect. Think. Do. I’d first gotten the call, an inquiry call for coaching, two weeks previous. In a follow-up…
Since Feeling is First My most favorite lines of poetry are from ee cummings: since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss…
The Space Between My dad let me use my college fund to buy a horse when I was 11. I commend him for that decision, even though much to his chagrin one horse…



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