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Intrinsic Motivation at Work

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What motivates people to do their best work in any endeavor they undertake? Management theory and practice has traditionally focused on elements that Kenneth Thomas calls 'extrinsic motivators': pay, benefits, status, bonuses, commissions, pension plans, expense budgets, and the like. While these are powerful motivators, particularly in command/control job situations where workers have little or no say in how the job is managed, by themselves they are no longer enough. In today's organizations, where managers expect workers and teams to self-manage their work, intrinsic rewards are essential.

This breakthrough book provides the first comprehensive treatment of intrinsic motivation in the workplace-the psychological rewards workers get directly from the work itself-offering clear advice on how companies can harness its tremendous power to develop a more committed, self-managing workforce. Written in an engaging, accessible style and grounded in solid academic research, the book provides a diagnostic framework for addressing problems of intrinsic motivation and essential ways to build it.

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I find that a lot of people hold old assumptions about work that no longer apply. So this first part of the book will help you understand how dramatically work has changed, the nature of today’s work, and what engagement looks like in today’s organizations.

It is hard to grasp how rapidly and dramatically the worker’s role has changed in this country. Consider that we even use different words to describe workers now. Few organizations still use the word subordinate to describe workers. Even the word employee has given way to associate in many Fortune 100 organizations. These word changes are a surface sign of the deeper shift in workers’ jobs.

In The New American Workplace, James O’Toole and Edward Lawler provide a detailed analysis of workplace changes over the last three decades.1 Look at their data in figure 1. In the twenty-five years between 1977 and 2002, there were huge surges in the number of workers who reported that their work was meaningful, allowed them discretion, and made use of their abilities. In roughly the span of a single generation, then, there has been a sea change in the nature of work.




This chapter will help you understand the key role of purpose in today’s work. As we’ll see later, meaningful purposes are a foundation for worker engagement and self-management.

To begin, let’s take a moment to consider the nature of work itself.

I invite you to take a moment to examine your own assumptions about work. Work is made up of tasks. What words or phrases come to mind when you try to define what a task is? If that is too general of a question, then pick a specific task your work team performs and think about how you would describe it to a new team member.

I’ve learned that there are two very different ways of answering that question. The first way reflects the traditional, activity-centered notion of work. It says that tasks are made up of activities (behaviors) that a worker needs to perform. So if you were explaining flight attendants’ jobs, for example, you would mention activities such as giving safety instructions, serving meals and beverages, and distributing pillows. This is the way most of us were trained to think about workers’ jobs. It is a notion of work that fit the compliance era very well, since compliance is about following behavioral directions.




This chapter will give you a detailed understanding of the essence of today’s work—self-management. As we’ll see, it is the defining characteristic of employee engagement as well as the source of the intrinsic rewards that drive employee engagement.

You’ll probably miss the core of today’s more purposeful work if you only look at the visible activities or behaviors of this work. You will see only tremendous variety—bookkeeping, counseling, sales, and so on. The common core requirements of the new work aren’t behavioral at all—at least not in the traditional way we think of overt, behavioral actions. They involve the mental events that direct those actions toward a purpose.

Consider the way managers talk about the new work. It involves “working smart,” “using judgment,” “taking responsibility,” and “applying your intelligence” toward the organization’s purposes. Again, these are mental events. Academics use fancier words to describe this purposive mental activity: self-regulating, self-controlling, and self-managing. I prefer the term self-managing because it conveys the idea that workers now do much of what managers used to do for them. Whatever term you prefer, we are talking about the way that workers add value in the new work.




THE WISE CONSULTANT traveled widely to talk with the new workers and returned to share his learnings. He told the executives of the more Purposeful nature of the new work and of the active Self-Management required for worker Engagement, and the executives could see that this was so.

“What, then, is the key to this Engagement?” asked the executives. “Is it Money for their value-added?”

“You need to provide Fair Pay, of course, and Training for skills. For there are other employers who will provide these if you do not. But I have learned that the key to Engagement is not money. It has more to do with the Heart.”

The executives bade him explain, so the consultant continued. “In truth, to actively self-manage is Demanding for them. But they are not opposed to such demands. After all, most are parents and give much of themselves in that way. What they crave—in work as in parenting—is the sense that they make a Positive Difference in something of value. They long to feel that their Conscientiousness is making a Contribution on life’s stage—that their efforts are advancing a Worthy Purpose. They are Fulfilled, and their Engagement Sustained when their Self-Management is effective in such a cause. Then their work truly gives back to them. But, alas, they become Bitter and Dispirited when their Conscientiousness seems for naught.”




This part of the book will introduce you to the four intrinsic rewards that drive employee engagement, give you an understanding of their powerful effects, and provide you with a diagnostic framework you can use to build those rewards.

During the compliance era when work was less meaningful, managers were forced to think about how they could make workers care about their work. So their motivational arsenal depended heavily on using rewards and punishments that were extrinsic to the work itself and on applying direct social pressure. It would likely surprise those old-school managers to learn that the key rewards that drive worker engagement today come directly from engagement itself—from the steps involved in active self-management that we discussed in the last chapter.

How is that possible?

Each of the events in the self-management process requires the worker to make a judgment—of the meaningfulness of the task purpose, the degree of choice available in selecting activities, how competently he or she is performing those activities, and the amount of progress being made toward the task purpose.1 These four judgments, then, are logical requirements of self-management. But they are much more than that. They are not detached, arm’s-length judgments—they carry a strong emotional charge. When the judgments are positive, their emotional charges are the intrinsic rewards of self-management—the emotional “juices” that energize and reinforce continued engagement.2 In our research, Walt Tymon and I have found it helpful to refer to these emotional charges, or feelings, as a “sense of meaningfulness,” “a sense of choice,” and so on.3




This chapter will help you reexamine some old half-truths about motivation, give you a basic understanding of how the intrinsic rewards work, and provide you with some research findings on the widespread benefits of those rewards in the workplace.

Let’s start with some common, but misleading, assumptions about motivation.

If you are like me, the notion that you are energized or de-energized by your work fits your experience—it rings true at a gut level. When I first heard this idea, however, I remember that it had a flavor of New Age mysticism. (Is it psychic energy? I wondered.) I now realize that the idea seemed strange to me because it did not fit the rational-economic model that had long dominated thinking about work motivation. Management had several generations to perfect the motivation of compliance. Over this time, the rational-economic thinking that underlies compliance motivation became so ingrained that it seemed self-evident.

There is also a pervasive bias in the public at large that supports that tendency. Research shows that people are quick to recognize the importance of intrinsic rewards in their own behavior but tend to assume that others are motivated by economic “deals” and personal gain,1 so it is worth spending some time here to understand the limitations of rational-economic assumptions about motivation and to understand how intrinsic motivation works—in others as well as oneself.




Now that you understand the intrinsic rewards and how they power engagement, you’ll need a diagnostic framework to help you decide two things: (1) which intrinsic rewards need boosting and (2) how to boost those rewards.

We’ll be using the same framework to help you manage both your own engagement and the engagement of the people who report to you. So I’ll briefly introduce it to you here before we start applying it in parts III and IV of the book.

The short answer is that you need a diagnostic framework to point you toward what’s most likely to make a difference and to save you from having to try motivational solutions in an inefficient, hit-or-miss way.

A large number of experts have offered recommendations for energizing or engaging workers. Many of these address important pieces of the puzzle of intrinsic motivation. For example, visions are an important part of inspiration but are not the whole. Likewise, “bureaucracy busting” and delegation provide necessary freedom but are also not enough. Other writers emphasize celebrations, coaching, customer feedback, and so on.




THE WISE CONSULTANT told the executives what he had learned of the four Intrinsic Rewards that power workers’ engagement—the sense of Meaningfulness, Choice, Competence, and Progress. He told them of the far-reaching Effects of these rewards—on Performance, Retention, Development, Commitment to their organization, and Reduced Stress. And the executives truly saw the Power of these rewards and the need to master them.

“How should we begin?” asked the executives.

“I have given this much thought,” replied the consultant, “and have concluded that you must first look to Your Own Intrinsic Rewards.”

The executives, who were Busy People, asked why this was necessary.

“There are Three Reasons,” explained the consultant. “First, you must tune into these Rewards in Your Own Experience in order to have first-hand Knowledge of them. This Knowledge will help you to recognize and bolster the Rewards in the people you lead.” Seeing wisdom in this, the executives nodded their agreement.

“The second reason,” the consultant continued, “involves your Credibility. You must yourself be seen as Engaged in order to lead them for Engagement. Likewise, you must feel the Intrinsic Rewards yourself in order to help inspire them in others and to talk about the motivations you share. Without that, your efforts will not appear sincere, will not be heeded, and will breed Cynicism.” Again, the executives nodded agreement.




This part of the book will help you manage your own intrinsic rewards. The present chapter will help you tune into those rewards so that you can recognize them in your own experience and make a general assessment of their strengths. Then, in chapters 8 through 11, we will cover the building blocks for each of the four rewards, with actions you can take.

Some readers will be content with their intrinsic rewards and eager to get on to part 4, which deals with leadership. If you fit that description, I still recommend that you read the material in this chapter. The descriptions of the experience of the four intrinsic rewards will also help you recognize the levels of the intrinsic rewards in your team members and allow you to talk about them more fluently

If you are not used to thinking about your own intrinsic rewards—or if you suspect that you are not getting as much energy and fulfillment from your work as you would like—you will want to read all five chapters in this section. Mark up the pages in any way that will help you understand your engagement and what you can do to manage it.




There’s a lot you can do to build a sense of meaningfulness in your own job. The building blocks for meaningfulness are these:

Now let’s look at some actions that you can take to address these building blocks.

What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.


For starters, it will be important for you to control any cynicism you may have. This will be vital to your own success as a leader and also to your own intrinsic motivation at work. How do you do that? I’ve done research with Walt Tymon on thinking habits that influence intrinsic motivation.2 We learned that people’s thoughts are shaped by the implicit questions they ask themselves. If you size up situations by first asking yourself what’s wrong, for example, you will nearly always find something that is wrong or could go wrong—and your perceptions of the world around you will be heavy in deficiencies and problems. We called this habit “deficiency focusing,” and found that people who use it tend to get fewer intrinsic rewards from their work and to experience more stress.3 This kind of thinking is a habit that can be changed. If you find that you do this, you can begin to balance your approach to situations by stopping to ask yourself what is going well and can go well. The goal here isn’t to ignore problems but rather to get a more balanced view that doesn’t put problems on center stage. Basically, you have to realize that this is a choice and keep choosing to see a more balanced view that includes more positives—a view that encourages hope and passion.4




T he building blocks for your sense of choice are these:

The first three building blocks—delegated authority, trust, and security—give you the freedom to make choices. The last two building blocks—clarity of purpose and information—allow you to make informed choices.

The following are some actions you can take to provide these building blocks for yourself.

Control your destiny or someone else will.


Once you commit to a purpose, it is extremely frustrating not to be able to use your intelligence to best achieve that purpose—to see better ways of achieving the purpose but be unable to take the right action. In effect, you hold yourself accountable for achieving the purpose but you can’t control your own destiny and it eats your heart out.

The first step is to negotiate with your boss for the authority you need. In these negotiations, pay particular attention to the two concerns that your leader will most likely respond to: how the added authority would help you or your team achieve the purpose, and the ability you have shown to handle that authority. I’ll discuss the first concern here and the second later in this chapter, under the heading “Earning Trust.”




As a manager, some of your sense of competence will come from how competently your team performs its activities. Here, I’ll concentrate more on the sense of competence you get from performing your own activities well.

The building blocks for your sense of competence are these:

The following are some actions that will help you acquire more of these building blocks.

All men who have turned out worth anything have had the chief hand in their own education.


Much of your learning will come from your own experimentation and the feedback you receive. Remember the feedback arrows in the self-management model in chapter 3? Feedback can lead you to improve the way you perform activities or to choose new activities that will result in better performance. But it would be very inefficient to limit yourself to this type of direct learning. You’ll want to find out what other experts have learned and see how it will help you. New knowledge can give you new options that would take you a long time to discover for yourself.




T he building blocks for your sense of progress are these:

The following are some actions you can take to help develop these building blocks.

Think win/win; seek first to understand, then to be understood; synergize.


In collaborative relationships, people look for solutions that meet everyone’s concerns when disagreements or conflicts arise—that is, they look for win-win outcomes. (A model of collaboration and the alternative approaches to conflict is covered in chapter 17.) It is especially important to have a collaborative relationship with your boss so you are able to have open, problem-solving discussions about important issues. However, you will also want to build these kinds of relationships with peers, your direct reports, and clients. I invite you to think for a minute about any noncollabo-rative work relationships you may have that are interfering with your own task progress. As you do this, try to avoid issues of blame and to see these relationships as opportunities to hone your collaborative skills. I’ll offer a few how-to suggestions here that have proven helpful for me.




This part of the book will help you build the intrinsic rewards that power engagement in the people who report to you. This chapter provides some general tips. Chapter 13 will help you chart the intrinsic rewards in your team to set priorities for change. Chapters 14-17 will give you detailed suggestions for building the intrinsic rewards in your work team. Then chapter 18 will offer a brief summary and a final piece of advice.

So, let’s get to the general tips.

Part of leadership is focusing attention—and the conversation1— on what matters most. To lead for engagement you will need to make sure that people are asking the questions that are central to self-management:

Model that behavior for your team by focusing team discussions on those issues, featuring them in your written communications with team members, and raising those issues in conversations with individual team members.

An important skill here is learning to frame specific situations in terms of these four issues. For example, if team meetings bog down for some reason, resist the urge to vent frustration or assign blame. Mention that this situation is slowing progress toward attaining your team’s purposes. With that in mind, point out that holding productive meetings is an important competence area for the team to work on. Devote attention to skill building in that area— for yourself and team members.




This chapter will help you develop an initial strategy for raising the engagement level of your team. We’ll begin by helping you form initial impressions of the levels of the four intrinsic rewards in your team. Then we’ll talk about a general strategy for building engagement.

If you want a precise measure of your team’s sense of meaningfulness, choice, competence, and progress, consider using the Work Engagement Profile1 described in chapter 5. The WEP will allow you and the team members to see how their scores compare to those of other people who have taken the instrument. That process can be an engaging kickoff to a more detailed discussion of intrinsic motivation in your team.

What I’ll try to do here, however, is to give you an alternative method—a less precise, more general way of gauging the levels of144 those intrinsic rewards. I’ll point out some common signs to help you recognize high and low levels of each reward. If you then follow up with more detailed conversations with team members, you will get a fair sense of those levels before you begin to set priorities for improvement.




This chapter will guide you in building a sense of meaningfulness in your team. As we discussed in chapters 2 and 3, it is the pull of a meaningful work purpose that initiates the rest of the self-management process. So ensuring a sense of meaningfulness is often a key place to begin leading for engagement.

The material in this chapter is organized around the five key building blocks of meaningfulness:

Each of these building blocks, when missing, will create an obstacle to meaningfulness. You can use this set of building blocks as a diagnostic tool to troubleshoot the sources of low meaningfulness in your team and then use the suggested actions to create those missing building blocks.

Some people get their kicks stompin’ on a dream….


It is very difficult for a work group to get energized around a meaningful purpose if the members don’t feel safe to talk about their passions. One of the greatest joys of group work is a shared excitement about what is possible. But one or two vocal cynics can be enough to stifle the excitement.




This chapter will help you build a sense of choice in your team. As we discussed in chapter 3, exercising intelligent choice is a primary way that workers add value in today’s work— adapting their behavior to the requirements of different conditions and coming up with innovative solutions to the problems they encounter. So ensuring a sense of choice is a vital part of your leadership for engagement.

Of the four intrinsic rewards, leaders have the most control over workers’ sense of choice. Leadership style is often described by the amount of choice given workers—from autocratic (little choice) to participative or delegative (much choice).1 Likewise, advocates of job enrichment or worker empowerment have emphasized the importance of the leader’s delegation of authority to workers. Still, this delegation is not always a simple matter. And delegating authority is only one step in creating a genuine sense of choice.

There are five building blocks of choice:

Power to act and make decisions about the work in all of its aspects.




This chapter will guide you in building a sense of competence in your team. As discussed in chapter 3, a sense of competence comes from the third step in the self-management process, monitoring one’s work activities for quality of performance. So a sense of competence is directly related to performing work activities well—another important way that engaged workers add value. There are five building blocks for competence:

Management Principle #6: Institute training on the job.


Over time, workers gain a great deal of knowledge through their own experiences with tasks—through experimentation and feedback. Some of this knowledge is implicit or tacit—difficult to express, like how to perform a physical skill gracefully. The rest is explicit knowledge that can be expressed and shared. This explicit knowledge includes learnings about techniques, best practices, and rules of thumb that contribute to competent performance. Adding to this knowledge can be a relatively quick way of increasing competence, allowing workers to jump ahead of where they would otherwise be on their own learning curve.


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