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Intrinsic Motivation: A New Source 3x Performance?

Some of the most powerful drivers of performance are being neglected. That is because many managers don’t really know what motivates their people. Moreover, what they assume motivates them is often wrong. 

The Neglect of Motivation’s Powerhouse

Despite a revolution in what we know about motivating performance, data on what is happening day to day suggests that many organizations are struggling to move beyond the ‘carrot and stick’.

There is a widespread over reliance on traditional rewards and incentives that have only limited power to drive performance. Meanwhile, the most powerful motivational force – intrinsic motivation – is largely neglected.

Aligning intrinsic motivation with corporate goals has the potential to generate up to 3 times the level of commitment and determination. That makes it hard to see how extraordinary performance can be achieved without it. However, it is not just about business results and shareholder returns. It is also about meeting the organization’s obligation to its people – enabling them to develop, grow and even thrive through their work.

Here we set out the ‘win-win’ case for seeking to align corporate goals with the interests and passions of those charged with ‘making it happen’.

Discretionary Effort At Work

Most of the great things we achieve at work involve some element of discretionary effort. They require more than a ‘tick in the box’ approach, depending instead on the passion, creativity and commitment of those doing the work. How much of these things will be put to service in pursuit of the organization’s goals cannot be taken for granted, however. 

Data shows that most people leave much of their passion, talent and creativity at the door.  Typically, as much as 39%1.  What a waste – especially at a time when there is such a premium on talent and innovation. 

Despite all that has been written about leadership, people themselves get to choose how much of their passion, creativity and talent they bring to their work and how much gets left outside the office door. 

The power of traditional performance reviews, financial rewards, pressure or cajoling to unlock the discretionary effort required for extraordinary performance is disappointingly limited. Indeed, they struggle to engage people, much less fuel extraordinary performance2.

The Motivation Revolution

There has been a revolution in what we know about motivating performance. So much so that, what we once believed about human motivation and how to incentivize it has been turned on its head. But this has all happened so quickly that many managers are struggling to keep pace with the changes. 

Below are some of the surprise findings of the new science of performance and motivation – how many are you familiar with:

  • The types of rewards that motivate simple and routine work, don’t necessarily motivate more complex and demanding work.
  • Using the wrong reward can have a negative effect – diminishing intrinsic motivation and even performance.
  • There is a social aspect to rewards and incentives – with social comparison and social conformity, for example, acting as powerful forces.

As the above examples suggest, human motivation is a lot more complex than we might have imagined. However, as with every revolution, there are both winners and losers.

While many of the traditional methods of motivation have been undermined, there is an upside – that is a new clarity regarding human performance.  It centres on the realization that: Performance (and peak performance in particular) is a matter of individual and group discretion. This is where the power of intrinsic motivation comes into play and it is a key reason for Pitstop to WinTM.

Even the organization’s people experts can overlook the power of intrinsic motivation.  For example, they leverage personality tests in recruiting and developing talent, yet they fail to see that people’s goals and motivations can shape (and indeed illuminate) their behaviour, as much as their character or personality.

The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

As the name suggests intrinsic comes from within, rather than without.  It is fuelled by our own interests and passions, hopes and desires, rather than a manager, a performance review, or even a bonus.  The implication is clear:  People have to unlock their own potential.

Managers do not hold the key for unlocking potential, what we know about the relative power of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation makes this clear. Moreover, to unlock people’s full talent, creativity or commitment managers cannot force the lock open.

As leaders we can pressure and cajole people, encouraging or directing them to work harder and to do better. This often generates a short-term uplift, however when we turn our backs performance is likely to return to its normal level. Our efforts to drive performance are likely to be met with frustration unless they connect with the personal interests and motivations of the people whose potential we want to unlock.

Everybody is different and so too is their motivation in respect of work performance. So, when it comes to unlocking performance potential – think of it as a combination lock. The sequence of numbers required is different for each person.  The data on the effectiveness of traditional rewards and incentives shows that there is no one standard formula.

Our data shows that organizations spend lots of time talking about what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, but not enough time on ‘why’ it needs to be done. They spend even less time connecting that ‘why’ to what matters to the individuals and teams that must make it happen.  Yet, we know that if the ‘why’ is clear and compelling people can always find the ‘how’. 

Sources of Intrinsic Motivation

The challenge is that many managers often never get to find out what it is that motivates their people – they are left guessing. Moreover, many of their people never get the opportunity to express or discover their full motivation through their work.  Both sides lose out as a result. 

For some people, the primary motivation may indeed be money. But that generally only goes so far in explaining what drives us. Intrinsic motivators are often more powerful in motivating above and beyond performance. Such motivators include:

  • Doing interesting or important work
  • Career development
  • Giving expression to & developing their unique talents & skills
  • Learning and growing
  • Making a difference
  • Feeling respected and appreciated
  • A sense of achievement / progress
  • Being a proud member of a team
  • Interacting with others / social connection
  • Helping / Giving something back
  • Personal contentment and well-being
  • Personal interests & hobbies
  • Work-life balance – time with family and so on.

The good news is that even somebody who uses a mop and a bucket can bring aspects of such intrinsic motivation (listed above) to their work3. Individuals and teams have the potential to enrich their work while at the same time getting the job done to the benefit of the organization and its customers benefit too. It enables people to bring more of themselves to their work and to take more from their work in terms of personal growth and development. 

The research papers written by psychologists to describe the nature of human motivation can be difficult reading.  However, there is one finding that makes the power of intrinsic motivation easy to grasp.  It is the research that suggest that an emotional commitment can be as much as three times more powerful than a rationale one.  You have no doubt seen this in action time and time again – such as in the example below: 

A group of executives gets together to workshop its plans for the quarter and make decisions regarding the key priorities to be acted upon. At the end of the meeting each executive can logically set out the rationale for each of the priorities chosen – including the needs of the business, the demands of stakeholders and so on. Yet, they may leave the meeting and do little or perhaps even do the opposite of what was discussed. 

The problem is that a rational decision to do something is not enough. If people are emotionally invested in the priorities chosen the likelihood of acting on them could be up to 3 times greater4.  The level of energy, creativity and talent they apply is likely to be 3 times greater too. That is because intrinsic motivation connects with the hearth as well as the head. 

Ironically, this 3x level of commitment could perhaps have been accessed if the day-long workshop involved fewer presentations by senior management and more dialogue and discussion from all those involved.  If rather than telling people why the priorities matter, the senior management team paused to ask people how important they felt each priority was and why.  Also, if they slowed down to enable to explore the implications for them in their work.

The New Win-Win-Win

Thinking ‘Win-Win’ has long been espoused as a habit of highly effective managers5. Pitstop to Win, takes this win-win principle one step further.  It addresses winning on 3 levels – winning for the organization, the team and the individual.  You can think of it as Win-Win-Win. 

With so much talk about the need for alignment, the last mile is the ability to connect people’s intrinsic motivation with the goals of the organization. Not only is this a key driver of performance, it is also a ‘higher calling’ in terms of:

  • Enabling people to realize their full potential through their work.
  • Creating a work environment that maximizes human dignity, values people and their contribution.
  • Providing opportunities for people to learn, develop and grow.
  • Fostering well-being and equips people to balance the requirements of their work with family and other aspects of their life.

In business the organizations goals must come first and that is the focus of Pitstop to Align.  However, in the process of realizing those goals, executives working alone and in teams can attend to their own needs too. They can organize the work and how they work together in ways that:

  • Brings out the best in each other
  • Live the values and norms that they espouse
  • Fosters an environment that is supportive, promotes growth, drives performance and sustains well-being.
  • Bolsters and supports each other in tackling the inevitable pressures and stresses of work

Unfortunately, the power that teams have to shape their work in a win-win-win manner often gets neglected.  But teams have more control than they think:

  • People can find the best way of working together as a team, without having to re-shape the culture or norms of the organization.
  • People can find the best roles for team members and ensure that people ‘play to their strengths’.  This can be done without re-drawing the organizational chart or changing job titles.
  • They can prioritize and allocate work in the most efficient way possible, without having to change project plans or the targets set. 

As the above suggests, Pitstop to Win has a very practical focus. The objective is to help people to explore within their teams the ways in which they can bring more of themselves to their work and take more from their work in terms of personal contentment, growth and development. 

  1. See Ray Collis & John O Gorman, Pitstop to Perform, ASG Group Press, 2018 []
  2. This is borne out year after year by the often-quoted statistics regarding the level of engagement (or to be more precise disengagement) at work. Gallup’s 2020 data for the US suggests that 36% of the US workforce is engaged.  See:  https://www.gallup.com/workplace/321965/employee-engagement-reverts-back-pre-covid-levels.aspx. []
  3. Jane E. Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski, What Job Crafting Looks Like, March 12, 2020.  Link: https://hbr.org/2020/03/what-job-crafting-looks-like []
  4. ‘Driving Performance and Retention Through Employee Engagement – A Quantitative Analysis of Effective Engagement Strategies’, Corporate Leadership Council, 2004. []
  5. Steven Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Managers, Free Press, 1989. []

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