The motivation dilemma

What’s the source of business-motivation? How are people motivated to do their work at work?

If Dan Pink is right, the answer isn’t much to do with money – at least, not for anything more than the most robotic kinds of work. Instead, the real drivers that matter most in business are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy is about choosing our path through the work, being self-directed. (We’ll label that as parameter A.)

Mastery is about developing and using our skills, pushing ourselves to create ever-better work. (We’ll label that as parameter S, for Satisfaction about Skill and Stretch.)

Purpose is about work that is meaningful in some way, that creates a sense of achieving or contributing towards some distinct aim or goal. (We’ll label that as parameter P.)

So what is motivation? It’s probably best understood as an aspect of power-potential in the human context – a multiplier on availability of power as the ability to do work. (On the same principle, we could say that demotivation occurs when that multiplier goes negative – an ‘anti-availability’ of ability-to-do-work.)

In practice it’s simplest to think of motivation as the human gas-pedal: it’s not the fuel or energy as such, but motivation is what makes the energy available to do the work that’s desired. In that sense, work-achieved is in part a function of motivation, which in turn is a function of the respective drivers for motivation. Or, if we use W, M and D as labels for work-achieved, motivation and drivers respectively, then in the simplest of pseudo-mathematical notation, W = f(M), where M=f(D).

So let’s say that what we want to happen in the business is some form of creative-work or knowledge-work, where money doesn’t work well as a motivator. Let’s keep things really simple, and say that the total motivation is the result of a simple sum of those drivers of autonomy [A], mastery [S] and purpose [P]. (I do know that in reality it isn’t anything like as simple as that, but it’s close enough for purposes of illustration here.) In other words, W = f(M) = f(ASP).

Next step: let’s assume that there’s a maximum-value of 10 that we could assign to each of those drivers – autonomy, mastery and purpose. This would give us a maximum-possible motivation of M=f(10 + 10 + 10).

Imagine that that represents the total maximum motivation available to an individual person.

To again keep things simple, imagine that this person starts work with a mid-level on each of those drivers. Reasonably self-motivated, feeling reasonably challenged on skill, and with a reasonable sense of purpose:  5A + 5S + 5P.

Yet how can we help that person to maintain, or better, that level of motivation at work? Which is where we hit up against the business-motivation dilemma:

the more the organisation tries to control what and how things are done,
the less motivation there will be to do the work that the organisation wants done 

The first thing we ask people to do in a business is to give up some of their autonomy, in order to work as part of a team or the company. Which means that A will naturally tend to go down. (In a dysfunctional Taylorist top-down hierarchy, A can easily go negative.)

The next thing we do is that we’re likely to ask them to follow procedures and suchlike, reducing the skill and the challenge. Which means that S will naturally tend to go down. (In a pure Taylorist context, the insistence on ‘de-skilling’ the work means that S must inherently go to zero or less.)

And we’re also going to ask them to work towards the collective purpose rather than their own purpose. Which means that P will naturally tend to go down too. (When the only purpose given is explicitly someone else’s purpose – “the purpose of this company is to make money for the shareholders” – then P can easily go negative as well.)

So unless we do something to counter these natural impacts on motivation, the very fact of bringing someone into a company will automatically reduce their motivation to do the work of the company.

(As above, if we’re not careful, the motivation will go negative, leading to ‘presenteeism‘: the person is present, and costing the organisation money and more, but not much in the form of constructive work is actually being done – in effect, negative motivation leading to negative performance. Negative-motivation in one person will also tend to pull others’ motivation down too – a classic ‘death-spiral’ leading ever-downward towards a deeply-dysfunctional mess…)

The conventional business answer is that we offer them money instead, as ‘compensation’ for loss of autonomy, mastery and purpose. Yet money doesn’t work well as a motivator for knowledge-work: in fact, as Dan Pink demonstrates, once we go past a certain key threshold – summarised as “enough money to remove the question of money from the table” – giving people more money actually sends the quality of work down, not up.

Yet if money won’t work, then what do we do? What business-architectures will preserve and enhance business-motivation for the people who work in that business?

We can boost autonomy by ensuring that at least some of the work is self-directed and/or self-paced, or in teams that are self-directed. (And we can reduce the risk of further demotivation by expunging micromanagement and similar problems from the context.)

We can boost mastery by ensuring that the work includes personal challenge and/or personal skills-development. (And we can reduce the risk of further demotivation by carefully contextualising any Taylorist-style ‘business process reengineering’ and the like.)

We can boost purpose by ensuring clear linkage between personal goals and collective goals – creating emotive reasons for personal commitment towards those shared aims. (And we can reduce the risk of further demotivation, by refocussing organisational attention on the shared-enterprise rather than on the divergent goals of shareholders and other ‘non-enterprise’ stakeholders.)

Yet note the effective mathematics of this: the more that any one of those drivers slumps down, the more we’ll need to lift the others up, just to keep the same level of effective motivation – let alone anything better than that. If the context can’t allow anything more than a near-zero autonomy, we can perhaps compensate if we boost either mastery or purpose far enough to become an intense personal driver – ‘strong enough to get someone out of bed on Monday morning’, as the old phrase goes. And if the motivation goes too far down on more than one strand, there’s no way that we boost the remaining driver high enough to make it work.

For almost every organisation, there’s a delicate trade-off to manage here – and it’s not as easy as it looks… It’s also not as simple as I’ve summarised it here: the relationships between those drivers is more likely to be a complex cross-leverage than a straightforward addition. But if we want to avoid the motivation-dilemma, we need to keep track of all of those strands – autonomy, mastery, purpose, and money too – and ensure that our architectures do support them as best we can, to create and maintain the motivation that will be needed throughout the organisation if it is to be able to achieve its aims.

4 Comments on “The motivation dilemma

  1. Hi Tom,
    while trying to understand your formula I was thinking to put it like this:
    W = f(M) = f(A * S * P) and allow values between 0 and 1 (0-100%) for A, S and P. If one drops to zero the whole is zero, which I honestly believe after talking to many people.

    Just my 2 cents,

    P.S.: Funny that you touch this topic today while I tried to connect people to GLUE. Need to explore even more.

    • Hi Kai – don’t worry too much about ‘trying to understand [my] formula’: I, uh, did say that it was “pseudo-mathematical notation”, didn’t I? 🙂 – and only intended as “close enough for purposes of illustration”?

      I suspect that the actual formula would be somewhere between my simple-addition and your multiplication, but with a lot of other decidedly-messy factors and tweaks and adjustments and dynamically-changing variables and so on thrown in – so much so that, to be honest, I doubt if it’s worth the trouble to try to work it out in any more detail than either my or your version above. I do take your point, though, about “If one drops to zero the whole is zero” – though in my experience, if it is above zero at all, we can usually leverage the other factors quite a lot to make the context more workable.

      On “Funny that you touch this topic today”, yep, that kind of serendipity happens a lot in this type of work: we can’t ‘control’ it, but we can certainly make use of it! “It will answer your need, but not to your command”, as an English children’s-story once put it… 🙂

  2. I can see where your going with this and I agree a different approach and metric to the ‘$’ is required for many enterprise activities. It still seems strange to me that many ‘enterprises’ say that the workforce is ‘the most valuable asset they have’ whilst keeping workforceenterprise interactions cast from employment/management models from the 60’s.

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