Engaging and motivating staff

Innovation; Research

Engaging and motivating staff

I recently had the privilege of hearing International author, and former White House employee Daniel H. Pink talk about his latest book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books, 2009).  Drawing on 50 years of behavioural science research he outlined hisapproach to intrinsic motivation which will enhance performance and engagement in the workplace. He contests the 'carrots and sticks' approach to motivation. He suggests that there are three keys to motivation that enable people do their best work:

  • Autonomy – the desire to direct our lives
  • Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves.
"One cannot lead a life that is truly excellent without feeling one belongs to something greater and more permanent than oneself." Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
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The world of work has shifted dramatically, but the systems we use to manage work, including our reward and recognition systems, have not kept pace with this change. We have traditionally believed that "rewarding an activity will get you more of it and punishing an activity will get you less of it." However research shows that in today's world this simplistic approach can actually result in the exact opposite.

There's a significant disconnect between what organisations do in terms of reward and recognition, and the impact on results and innovation. In 'the future of management' London Business School Professor and HBR author Gary Hamel argues that the management paradigm of the last century – centred on control and efficiency – no longer suffices in a world where adaptability and creativity drive business success. To thrive in the future, companies must reinvent how they manage and motivate employees. Daniel Pink suggests "control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement".


Provide employees with autonomy over some (or all) of the four main aspects of work:
  • When they do it (time) – Consider switching to a ROWE (results-only work environment) which focuses more on the output (result) rather than the time/schedule, allowing employees to have flexibility over when they complete tasks.
  • How they do it (technique) – Don't dictate how employees should complete their tasks. Provide initial guidance and then allow them to tackle the project in the way they see fit rather than having to follow a strict procedure.
  • Whom they do it with (team) – Although this can be the hardest form of autonomy to embrace, allow employees some choice over who they work with. If it would be inappropriate to involve them in the recruitment/selection process, allow employees to work on open-source projects where they have the ability to assemble their own teams.
  • What they do (task) - Allow employees to have regular 'creative' days where they can work on any project/problem they wish – there is empirical evidence which shows that many new initiatives are often generated during this 'creative free time'.


"Mastery is a mindset: it requires the capacity to see your abilities not as finite, but as infinitely improvable". Allow employees to become better at something that matters to them:
  • Provide "Goldilocks tasks" – Pink uses the term "Goldilocks tasks" to describe those tasks which are neither overly difficult nor overly simple – these tasks allow employees to extend themselves and develop their skills further. The risk of providing tasks that fall short of an employee's capabilities is boredom, and anxiety is the risk of providing tasks that exceed their capabilities..
  • Create an environment where mastery is possible – to foster an environment of learning and development, four essentials are required: autonomy, clear goals, immediate feedback and Goldilocks tasks.
Mastery – "becoming better at something that matters" – is the second key to motivation. "Getting better at something provides a great source of renewable energy and motivation" suggests Pink.
The single greatest motivator is "making progress in one's work." The days that people make progress are the days they feel most motivated and engaged. By creating conditions for people to make progress, shining a light on that progress, recognizing and celebrating progress, organizations can help their own cause and enrich people's lives.


The third key to motivation is purpose. "Autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more" states Pink. Take steps to fulfill employees' natural desire to contribute to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves:

  • Communicate the purpose – make sure employees know and understand the organisation's purpose goals not just its profit goals. Employees, who understand the purpose and vision of their organisation and how their individual roles contribute to this purpose, are more likely to be satisfied in their work.
  • Place equal emphasis on purpose maximisation as you do on profit maximisation – research shows that the attainment of profit goals has no impact on a person's well-being and actually contributes to their ill-being. Organisational and individual goals should focus on purpose as well as profit. Many successful companies are now using profit as the catalyst to pursuing purpose, rather than the objective.
  • Use purpose-oriented words – talk about the organisation as a united team by using words such as "us" and "we", this will inspire employees to talk about the organisation in the same way and feel a part of the greater cause.

As an example of the power of purpose, Pink discussed the challenges hospitals in the US had with more than 100,000 deaths caused by in hospital disease transfer linked to poor hand hygiene. In a series of tests at a hospital in North Carolina the sign "Hand Hygiene Prevents Patients from Catching Diseases" led to 33 per cent more soap usage than the sign "Hand Hygiene Prevents You from Catching Diseases" or the funky slogan "Gel In, Wash Out".  Therefore staff in the hospital were motivated to act, when the action was linked to a greater purpose, rather than individual gain or funky slogans.

"Throughout my athletics career, the overall goal was always to be a better athlete than I was at that moment –whether next week, next month or next year. The improvement was the goal. The medal was simply the ultimate reward for achieving the goal." Sebastain Coe, middle distance runner and two time Olympic gold medal winner.

Bruce Armstrong
Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership