Connect People • Strengthen Leaders • Embrace the Future


Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose: the Science of Motivation

September 15, 2011 by Jonathan Gilburg

You may have heard about Daniel Pink's book, Drive.  And if you have not found the time to read it, I highly recommend this 10 minute YouTube video that explains the essence of his premise.

Strongly rooted in behavioral scientific research is this somewhat counter-intuitive premise: when it comes to complex tasks where the solution is not easily understood, monetary incentives actually diminsh performance vs. increase it.

In fact what is motivating for people is to have a sense of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose in the work.  And if money is no longer an issue (e.g. people earn a living wage or salary—they have enough), performance increases dramatically when these three elements are present.

What does this mean for leaders who are facing complex challenges in their organizations where answers and solutions are not easily seen or understood?


I think the challenge for so many leaders is how do we install these ethics into our cultural norms, especially when we have relied for so long on traditional command and control management structures?  How do we elevate and nurture engagement from our employees and stakeholders?

I often think step one is knowing, or in this case, not knowing how to do this.  What I mean is for leaders to be okay and comfortable with the fact that they have no idea how to create these conditions, and are willing to ask for help from the people.  The leader's job is to convene the conversations with her employees and stakeholders, ask the important questions, listen to and consider the answers, and act on what makes sense.  And when we act, our actions are informed by the people whom we want to be engaged in the process of devising solutions, so their level of commitment and buy-in (engagement) is already high.  Our actions are more likely to have the desired outcome.

There is a formula for making this happen.  We have supported many leaders grappling with the question of HOW?  How do I engage my employees or key stakeholders in helping me solve the tough challenges we are facing?  How do we get the momentum moving in the right direction, when for so long, we have been inert (at best) or in a downward spiral with trust and morale? 

It is a philosophical shift that can be challenging to our egos and sense of positional worth.  The leader is supposed to have the answer to the problem or know where to find it, right?  And yet, the realities we are facing defy that approach. I have empathy for the quagmire this poses to today's leader.  

And I offer hope.  There is a way through this.  It is not an abdication of your authority or position, but rather an expansion of how you define it.  Leaders need to "hold the space" for solutions and creative thinking.  They need to be willing to release hold on knowing and instead be vigilant in asking people to find it.  To nurture experimentation and exploration.  To give people the freedom to try something, and if it fails to harvest the learning and try again.  To acknowledge that any new effort towards a solution is better than no effort for fear of it failing.

I would argue that the stakes are pretty high right now for many organizations and institutions. Failure is a distinct possibility—especially if we continue to do things as we've always done.  We believe "the solutions are in the room" and are committed to helping people find those solutions.  We can help!