The Motivation Lens

According to Gallup, 87% of employees worldwide are disengaged at work, while companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their competitors by almost 150% in earnings per share.

No-one really likes to be treated like a cog in a machine, and certainly not for extended periods. While it can be relaxing and enjoyable to perform routine, repetitive tasks some of the time, separating out the thinking from the doing is essentially de-humanising.

And yet … during the industrial era it was exactly separating thinking from doing that led to huge increases in productivity: time and motion studies enabled standardisation of many work tasks, which enabled less skilled workers to produce efficiently to a reasonable quality standard, and also enabled the introduction of mechanisation.

From these successes arose the division in labour between managers (who did the observing, thinking, coordination, and telling) and the doers (who performed the manual work). Under this distinction there is an unfortunate tendency to treat labour as the proverbial “cogs in the machine” or the possibly more unflattering “meat robots”.

Of course, treating humans like this not only ignores their deeper sources of motivation; it also fails to tap their higher capabilities. In a static environment with simple work tasks it is feasible to optimize work processes periodically and train and pay people to conform, but this style of approach can’t compete in the more complex, fast-changing present. Organisations that can effectively tap into everyone’s thinking and creativity benefit in two ways: they vastly increase their ability to adapt and thrive, and also benefit from a much happier workforce — a real win-win.

The challenge: How to continue to reap the benefits of standardising work, without dehumanising the workforce?

A great answer is to reserve some time for improvement, and in improving harness broader human capabilities. Agile and Lean approaches (done right) make much of this continuous improvement philosophy.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivations

All jobs (routine or otherwise) rely to a lesser or greater degree on extrinsic motivators: notably the carrots of money and status, and the stick of the loss of both. This is the “work to live” model: both factors contribute to a sense of security, pride in the job that you do, and external recognition. Up to a point, the more money and the greater the status, the better.

But getting paid a lot and having high status is no guarantee of moment-to-moment happiness. For the especially greedy, no amount of pay is enough, but even the greedy may rightly complain when intrinsic motivators are missing from their day-to-day work, to which I now turn.

More so than extrinsic rewards, intrinsic factors contribute to how we feel moment-to-moment, and are particularly important for creative work, where carrots and sticks tend to exercise a blinkering effect.

Self-determination theory identifies three intrinsic motivators — Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy — which Dan Pink adapted and popularised in his book Drive as Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. Let’s put them side-by-side:

RelatednessConnection with and caring for others
AutonomyAutonomyAbility to make decisions and choices
CompetenceMasteryExisting skill, plus the opportunity to improve
PurposeService to an inspiring higher goal

While I appreciate Pink’s addition of Purpose, I tend to retain Connection as a synonym for Relatedness, and use the acronym C.A.M.P. for these key intrinsic drives.

The Virtuous Cycle of Improvement and Intrinsic Motivation

Let’s revisit the Virtuous Cycle of Improvement and explore how it hits all of the intrinsic motivators:

The Virtuous Cycle of Improvement harnesses the intrinsic motivators

Connection: By taking the time to improve as a team, and contributing at the next level, human bonds are reinforced. Celebrating as a group enhances this factor: almost everyone loves to be part of a winning team!

Autonomy: Compared to working within the tight bounds of an existing process (a low autonomy activity) looking for improvements, choosing among alternative strategies to learn and experiment and so on are potentially autonomous endeavours. Where autonomy is low in the nature of deliver-oriented work, it is especially important to encourage autonomy in improvement time.

Mastery: The key acknowledgement here is that mastery and improvement of job skills benefit the individual, the team, and the organisation. As well as learning better skills, the individual and team are learning to collaborate (more connection) and how to be better learners. When the same job can be accomplished in less time or quality is raised people gain objective validation of their increasing competence.

Purpose: Not only does improvement contribute to the organisation’s higher purpose, it also contributes to visions (acknowledged or otherwise) of developing a better way of working, and of people’s individual development and the team’s development. For example, if the team adopts the goal of becoming a high-performing team, improvement goals can be ticked off. If team members have individual goals for learning and mastering new skills to ensure future employability, the improvement cycle contributes to the purpose of long-term career success and providing for one-self and any dependants.

In terms of de-motivation the negative options are problematic:

Just doing more of the same work offends against equitability, and should at least be rewarded with raises or a bonus (extrinsic motivation).

Reducing headcount is catastrophic insofar as the people who aren’t fired are certain to experience survivor guilt (loss of connection) placing the virtuous cycle in grave danger.

Slacking off may induce feelings of guilt, perhaps justified by fear of the aforementioned negative consequences. If you privately make an improvement and fear being “rewarded” with more work or worse, I recommend testing the waters to see whether the fear is justified. If it is, then a careful strategy of negotiating a better outcome (or looking for job opportunities elsewhere) is definitely justifiable!


High performance and high morale driven by virtuous cycles are aligned, rather than opposed.

The virtuous cycle of improvement not only drives improved performance, but improved morale by hitting all major intrinsic motivators: Connection, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

Hence, removing demotivators and setting up virtuous cycles of improvement can be incredibly effective in repairing or boosting poor employee morale.

That worldwide staff morale is so low is a sad state, but rectifiable.

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