Intrinsic Motivation is the Drive for Extraordinary Results

Try to google “what motivates employees“, and you can spend the rest of your days figuring this mystery out, browsing through thousands of results.

A short but comprehensive summary is found on Science Direct. You get the overview and information on what you read on next, if you want to go deeper into the subject.

In this post, I briefly address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as it’s the most popular human motivation theory; then I look into Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, another idea that is extensively discussed about, sometimes without credit being given to the author (is it the too-long name perhaps? 🙂 ); I continue with Daniel Pink’s Drive book is on the reading list of all proper Scrum training and builds on Flow; I end up looking into healthy and motivated teams with Patrick Lencioni and Tom DeMarco. Stick with me, or jump to the videos and the summary (TL;DR) at the end.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

According to Maslow (1943), humans have five levels of needs: basic (physiological and safety), psychological (social, ego) and self-actualisation.

The pyramid visual is essential, as individuals have to reasonably satisfy one level of needs before moving towards the next level. A man’s need for love, status, recognition are nonexistent if he is not well fed. Similarly, if a person feels threatened, they will primarily need security, protection, and will be unwilling to take any risks.

The social needs of humans are very strong, yet organisations don’t encourage groups, they see it as a threat. Fortunately this is changing in new organisations, where friendships or a “family” environment is encouraged.

The esteem needs are rarely satisfied, men will indefinitely look for higher satisfaction of these, and they are only looked into when all of the lower needs are reasonably satisfied.

Finally, the self-actualisation need refers to realising one’s own potential, continuous personal development and growth. Only at this level we can adress the topic of highly motivated, high performance individuals and teams.

When an individual has all his other needs reasonably satisfied, more rewards in those areas will not equal in more motivation, so extrinsic motivation is not long-lived, nor is it scalable (we’ll discuss more about this with Daniel Pink). Also, an important distinction needs to be made between satisfied needs and motivation: a satisfied need is not a motivator of behaviour.

Princeton research on the income’s influence on happiness put a cap on our happiness: $75.000. Apparently the quality of life doesn’t improve beyond this sum. All salary increases below will raise the quality of life and happiness, but above more money doesn’t mean more happiness.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow

Flow is “a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.” excerpt from “Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience“.

The below image, from Csikszentmihalyi’s book, shows a boy, Alex (A) in four states of mind while playing tennis:

  • A1: he starts to play, has almost no skills and the only challenge is to kick the ball over the net; the difficulty is just right for his low skills, so he will probably enjoy it => and be in the flow
  • A2: as he keeps playing, his skills grow and he gets bored with just kicking the ball over the net => boredom
  • A3: or he will play against more skilled opponents where he needs to do more than just throw the ball over the net => anxiety
  • A4: as boredom or anxiety are not positive states, Alex needs to figure out how to get back in the flow, so he has only one choice: to increase his challenges => back in the flow

Csikszentmihalyi considers that happiness is intrinsic, not extrinsic, and it can be increased from creating more situations when you find yourself in the flow. A person who is in a state of flow while working won’t distinguish between work and free time, as they both will bring him immense satisfaction.

Listen to his TED talk below, and if you’re passionate about the subject, you can also read his book – Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Daniel Pink’s Drive

Daniel Pink is one of the authors that said it bluntly: rewards don’t motivate people. But before even getting into rewards, individuals must have “baseline rewards” (that are adequate and equitable), otherwise a person will have very little motivation.

His theory is that you can’t get the best out of your employees anymore by rewarding them with lavish compensations. On the contrary, rewarding an activity that used to be done because of intrinsic motivation, will make people spend less time on the work and show less interest for it. They will expect that reward, and the effect of it wears off after a while, so you need to create more rewards to get results; you just created extrinsic motivation.

The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table: Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work. Once you do that, it turns out there are three factors that the science shows lead to better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  1. Autonomy: self-direction, self-management will allow employees to be more engaged in what they’re doing and use their creativity to solve tasks that are becoming more and more complex. Pink talks about four dimensions of autonomy for employees: time (people can build their own working schedule around the time they are most creative or productive at), task (Google allows employees to spend 20% of their time on a project of their choosing), technique (people can innovate on their own method of work, don’t have strict processes that will stop them from doing their best work), and team (people can choose their teams).
  2. Mastery: is the desire to continuously get better at what you do. Humans love to get better at whatever they are doing, constantly increasing their challenges and skills to be in the flow (see Csikszentmihalyi’s theory). Pink argues there are three laws of mastery: (1) mastery is a mindset (you must have a growth mindset, to believe people can continuously improve at anything through learning and practice); (2) mastery is a pain (becoming better at anything requires effort, pain, and time); (3) mastery is an asymptote (you can approach it, get really close to it, but you’ll never reach it; so searching for mastery is a constant endeavour).
  3. Purpose: “Autonomous people working towards mastery perform at a very high level. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more” (excerpt from Daniel Pink’s book, Drive). To ensure that your employees have purpose, the company’s objective, goals, mission, vision have to be properly and continuously communicated to your teams, or better yet, you should engage them into building them. Employees need to understand also how their work contributes to reaching those goals.

If Drive stirs your curiosity and the videos here are not enough, you can read Pink’s book also.

I’m going to move away from the realm of individual motivation to team performance. The topic is very broad (and I will write another blog post especially for this), and I’d like to bring into discussion two authors that are a must read for an Agile manager: Patrick Lencioni shows that teams that bicker and debate are healthy teams (and the opposite, a calm team that never argues hides a highly dysfunctional team), while Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister talk about what software development teams need for high performance.

Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team

As Lencioni himself mentions in the video below, his model of strong teams is so simple that you’ll probably think “but I know all this, what else is new?“, yet it’s one of the most practical books on building high performance teams one can find.

Working with big companies and CEOs, Lencioni discovered two critical truths: (1) genuine teamwork in organisations remains as elusive as it has ever been; (2) organisations fail to achieve teamwork because they unknowingly fall prey to five natural but dangerous pitfalls, which he called five dysfunctions of a team (from Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. A Leadership Fable, 2002):

  1. Absence of trust: trusting people means being vulnerable; if the team members are not open with each other – thus vulnerable – to admit their own mistakes and learn from them, it’s impossible for the team to build a foundation of trust and become high performance teams.
  2. Fear of conflict: lack of trust doesn’t allow conflict to happen either. Conflict is a natural state for a team, as they need to be able to debate ideas and solutions passionately and without a filter. Veiled discussions, dishonesty, guarded comments won’t allow the team to reach its potential.
  3. Lack of commitment: without debating and discussing openly, without airing opinions (and sometimes feelings), the team won’t be fully committed to deliver its objectives. Even if they agree on the objectives, that agreement doesn’t mean commitment.
  4. Avoidance of accountability: without commitment, there is no real accountability either. If a manager is not fully committed to an objective, he will find it hard to call his own people on not reaching their objectives as well.
  5. Inattention to results: this happens when team members put their individual needs (career growth, ego, recognition), or even the needs of their own team above those of the company as a whole.

You have to identify these dysfunctions in your team – Lencioni has an assessment included in the book for this – and work with the team to overcome them (from training, workshops, to even firing individuals that are an impediment to building a strong team).

Watch Lencioni’s video on the five dysfunctions here; if you want to go further and investigate the topic, you can read his book – The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, and the following field guide to overcome the five dysfunctions:  Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide for Leaders, Managers, and Facilitators.

Learnings from Tom DeMarco’s Peopleware

Peopleware. Productive Projects and Teams,  Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, is a work of art and deserves a full blog post on its own. My intention here is to extract characteristics of high performance teams according to these two esteemed authors. I highly recommend you read this book if you work in software development in particular; if you are to choose only one book from this blog post, make it this one.

  • First of all, you have to get to the understanding that the failure of most software development projects is caused by the sociology of the project (communication, lack of motivation, high turnover, staffing, etc.), not technology. So this is where your focus should be if you want to build a successful product.
  • Create a safe-to-fail environment. Congratulate when people blow it, as this means they have tried more ways to find the best solution to the current problem.
  • Don’t “motivate” people; it’s very discouraging for individuals to believe their own motivation is inadequate and needs to be “supplemented” by that of a boss.
  • Embrace people’s uniqueness, as that’s what makes the project chemistry vital and effective, and don’t think of people as replaceable.
  • Overtime creates ” undertime” – every time people will work overtime to deliver to deadline is followed by a period of under performance, while they catch up with their lives. Nobody can work over forty hours a week at the intensity required for creative intellectual work.
  • The manager’s function is not to make people work, but to make it possible for people to work.
  • Create an office space where people can collaborate, communicate, have space to focus but also to co-create.
  • Women changed the way teams are organised and how team members interacted. Make sure you build diverse teams.
  • Productive teams:
    • need an important challenge; the challenge is what brings the team together and helps its member bond
    • the whole is bigger than its parts: once a team jells, it is unstoppable, a “juggernaut” for success
    • teams don’t attain goals, individuals attain goals; but teams will make sure that everyone pulls in the same directions, so that’s the real purpose of a team
    • you can’t make teams jell, you can’t build them; you have to grow teams
    • be aware of signs of “teamicide“: (1) defensive management; (2) bureaucracy; (3) physical separation; (4) fragmentation of people’s time; (5) quality reduction of the product; (6) phoney deadlines; (7) clique control
    • get rid of the competition; e.g. if teams are told that only one of them will be around next year, those people won’t be able to work as a team
    • good managers provide frequent opportunities for the team to succeed together
  • Hire people that jell well in a team, as the core of your work is the team, not the individual. “Someone who can help a project to jell is worth two people who just do the work“. These are signs of a jelled, high performance team:
    • low turnover
    • strong sense of identity
    • sense of eliteness
    • joint ownership of the product built
    • obvious enjoyment
    • basic peer-coaching will naturally happen

TL; DR: So, how do you create an environment of highly motivated employees?

  1. According to Maslow,  basic & psychological needs must to be fulfilled first, before the individual can find ways to express his highest potential. So reasonable pay, freedom for individuals to express themselves, make friends, fair recognition and rewards, safe space to express their concerns, and possibility to grow are essential.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi’s telling us that employees need to be intrinsically happy, we don’t need to “motivate” them, but we need to create the space for them to be in the flow, to make sure they are challenged to their potential and they are using their capabilities to the maximum into their work. People are most creative, productive, and often, happiest when they are in a state of flow.
  3. Pink is showing us that a motivated employee needs: autonomy (in time, task, technique, and team), mastery and purpose. Making sure your working environment ensures this for the individuals is essential for them to give their best.
  4. Patrick Lencioni is teaching us that the members of a truly cohesive team have to overcome five dysfunctions and change their behaviour so that: (1) they trust one another; (2) they engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas; (3) they commit to decisions and plans of actions; (4) they hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans; and (5) they focus on achievement of collective results.
  5. Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister emphasise that only jelled teams, where the whole is bigger than its parts, will reach high performance and create the best results possible, so you have to focus to create and empower teams, and make it possible for them to work at their best.

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