Intrinsic Motivation at Work

“…a disturbing number of the managers they see are running on empty - low in intrinsic rewards and approaching burnout. I don’t want this to happen to you.”

- Intrinsic Motivation at Work, page 84

Employee engagement has become more important than ever. Why is that? What do we mean by employee engagement? And how do we get it?

Maybe it was easier in the manufacturing era of the past. Organizations used two simple devices: centralized and hierarchical control, and detailed rules and procedures. Now, in the service era, we talk about the need to “work smart,” “use judgement,” “take responsibility,” and “apply your intelligence” toward organizational goals. This requires self-management which is the defining characteristic of employee engagement.

The heart of this book is twofold:

  1. What are the intrinsic rewards that reinforce self-management?
  2. How can you and your team increase those rewards so that engagement and self-management flourish?

Kenneth Thomas, a Professor Emeritus of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, teaches us that self-management begins when you commit to a meaningful purpose. You then choose suitable activities to achieve that purpose, perform those activities, monitor your competence and finally monitor your progress.

Below are three big ideas I garnered from Thomas’ excellent work.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

4 Key Elements and Drivers to Engagement

"If you’re not thinking all the time about making every person more valuable, you don’t have a chance."
- Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, Intrinsic Motivation at Work, page 10

There are four key elements to create engagement. Workers are engaged in their work when they have a sense of:

  1. Meaningfulness: The feeling that you are on a valuable mission and that your purpose matters in the larger scheme of things. This is driven by:
    1. A non-cynical climate
    2. Clearly identified passions
    3. An exciting vision
    4. Relevant task purposes
    5. Whole tasks
  2. Choice: The feeling that you can use your own judgement about how to contribute to the purpose.  This is driven by:
    1. Delegated authority
    2. Trust
    3. Security
    4. A clear purpose
    5. information
  3. Competence: The feeling that you are doing good, high-quality work. This is driven by:
    1. Knowledge
    2. Positive feedback
    3. Skill recognition
    4. Challenge
    5. High, noncomparative standards
  4. Progress: The feeling that your work is moving forward toward the purpose and that you can take corrective action when needed. This is driven by:
    1. A collaborative climate
    2. Milestones
    3. Celebrations
    4. Access to customers
    5. Measurement of improvement

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

What Do You crave?

"What they crave…is the sense that they make a Positive Difference in something of value."
- Intrinsic Motivation at Work, page 45

Yes, organizations need profits, but as De Geus is cited “[they] need profits the same way as any living being needs oxygen. It is a necessity to stay alive, but it is not the purpose of life.” People suffer when they lack purpose. Yet what is presented at every all-associate meeting? Market share, profitability? The CFO (Chief Financial Officer) gets the stage, when really it should be the CPO (Chief Purpose Officer). Workers are rarely inspired by economic purposes involving profit.

Meaningfulness is about the energy or passion you have for the purpose. This may change over time. Having a university-aged daughter who insists that everyone in her business class is driven by money alone, I was intrigued when Thomas talked about this changing over time. Younger workers, he says, are focused on proving they can handle things: work and life. So at this stage, their passion is simply showing their competence. But as they begin to realize they can do it, they commonly suffer a crisis of meaning. The work feels empty. Sound familiar? Thomas also pointed out that people are quick to recognize the importance of purpose in their own behavior, but tend to assume that others are motivated by economic deals and personal gain.

Average organizations and people don’t make the effort to identify their purpose. Exceptional ones not only identify it, but it is the guiding factor in every move. Think of Coca Cola. Their purpose is not to make sugar water. Rather, some brilliant marketers decided years ago that their purpose would be to share happiness! Brilliant. Their recruitment ads say “Make sharing happiness your life’s work!”

What do your recruitment efforts say? Does your vision express what your organization stands for? It should be a statement of an exciting future that would be meaningful and worthy.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Think Partner—Not Control

"Workers are engaged in the new work to the extent that they are actively self-managing at that work."
- Intrinsic Motivation at Work, page 38

Are you engaged in your work? Are your people? The essence of today’s work is self-management. This is the defining characteristic of employee engagement as well as the source of the intrinsic rewards that drive employee engagement. In other words, engaged employees are:

  1. Committed to a purpose
  2. Using their intelligence to make choices about how best to accomplish tasks
  3. Monitoring their behavior to make sure they are doing the task well
  4. Checking in to make sure their actions are actually accomplishing the purpose
  5. Taking corrective action when needed

So how do you create this? Many managers felt like they were “losing control” when they shifted from command and control to worker self-management. A better way to think of it is a shift rather than a loss. The workers take responsibility for the nuts and bolts decision making while the manager stays informed on issues of performance competence and progress.

You will use less authority and coercion to impose decisions and instead provide more information and advice. You will think of your relationship with them as a partnership, underscoring the free flow of information between leader and team member as they work toward their purpose. Coaching is another way of looking at it. As workers take increased responsibility for task purposes, they are more likely to welcome or even seek helpful input.

Thomas shows us is that engaging your employees is not a matter of personality or charisma. There are specific guidelines or tips to help. When you review the four elements of engagement and the five driving forces (listed under the The Big Idea), do you see room for improvement in your organization? What can you do today to contribute to building those drivers?

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Jill Donahue

ABOUT Jill Donahue

Everything I do is focused on improving patient outcomes. I do that by being a student and teacher of ethical, effective influence. I teach pharma people and health care professionals how to improve their ability to influence others...
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