Tap into the power of intrinsic motivation

In a previous article, I described the three levels of motivation. While the first two (survival and extrinsic) are present in everyone at all times, intrinsic motivation is not. The latter is harder to grasps, but yields much better results. Let’s look at the three things you need to put in place.

According to Dan Pink, intrinsic motivation is based on three pillars: autonomy, mastery and purpose. But how do you make teams more autonomous and competent? What purpose are we talking about? I will detail how to create an environment conducive to developing this motivation.

Autonomy or independence?

First of all, we must distinguish autonomy from independence. Independence is egocentric: I act alone, for myself. Whereas autonomy implies acting according to one’s own choice, and can be done within a framework.

The simplest example is children. Indeed, they start by developing their autonomy, such as dressing themselves. It is much later that they become independent: they leave to live alone, without the support of their parents. Autonomy develops rapidly in early childhood (0-6 years). Then with schooling, education sometimes reverses the development of autonomy. The child had a strong intrinsic motivation to learn new things, the “Why?” period. School, and later, the company; grades, rewards transform this intrinsic motivation into extrinsic motivation. The child then wants to get a good grade to obtain a gift, a privilege.

Eventually, the object of my interest goes beyond my control: is it in math or history that I should bring home a good grade? Intrinsic motivation has become extrinsic


From a professional point of view, autonomy is developed in four aspects: Task, Time, Technique and Team.

  • Do I have a choice of tasks to perform?
  • Can I assemble my own work team?
  • Am I constrained in the time allotted and especially in the times in which I have to work?
  • Finally, can I choose my working method, my technique to achieve the result?

The more autonomous your teams are, i.e. the more they can freely choose each of the 4 aspects of their work, the more their autonomy, and therefore their intrinsic motivation, is reinforced.

I can already hear the criticism: Yes, but… it doesn’t work, in my company, I have to tell my team what to work on, and the deadline… Otherwise, it will be a mess… Yes and no… Indeed, if your teams know your mission, your strategic plan, you could have confidence in their discernment and in the choice of tasks and deadlines. This is what happens in liberated companies.

How far are you willing to go to empower your teams? And therefore, more motivated?

Develop mastery

Perhaps one of the keys to trusting your team is having confidence in them and their competence. How does one develop mastery of a field or technique? With time, and practice. A thumb rule in music says that it takes 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso. This is obviously not true, but this rule shows that you have to spend time on it. If a person wants to become an expert, it doesn’t matter how much time and effort it takes to get there, because the flow will help them get there.

As I mentioned in an article about motivation, the question is what kind of goals are we setting: performance or learning? If we want to return to intrinsic motivation and reduce the impact of grades in schools (or in organizations), it is important to set goals related to mastery, effort and learning, rather than performance. For example, being able to explain to my grandfather how artificial intelligence works, exchanging with a pen pal in another language, … Which are then more motivating than exam marks.

What kind of goals do you set for your employees? And to yourself? Is it related to the outcome or the path to that outcome?

Find a purpose to your actions

Finally, the meaning of the action taken can become a powerful motivator. For example, Blake Mycoskie has created a business model in which, for every shoe sold, he donates one to a developing country. It makes your job as a web developer or telephone operator all the more meaningful: you are helping to put shoes on the feet of thousands of disadvantaged people. Your job is then more than a job, it is a cause.

What is the value I bring, that I create? Often asked during existential crises, or following difficult events, the response to this question is the purpose given to the action.

In fact, this is a trait that stands out strongly in the millennial generation. They need to be in line with the values of the company they work for.

What do your teams contribute to? Do they see the meaning of your actions? What is your value proposition to your customers, to your employees?