Leadership: Getting Intrinsic Motivation Right

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About a week ago, my seven-year-old grandson asked me how old I was. When I told him I was 71, his eyes got really, really big, like he didn’t realize that numbers went that high.

I know you’re supposed to want to be young again, but I don’t. When I was young I got a lot of things wrong and I was constantly surprised by the way people acted. I put way too much faith in rationality and I just kept getting the people parts wrong.

In my e-book, Become A Better Boss One Tip at A Time, I say that the things that you don’t do naturally you need to consciously and intentionally. That’s how the people part of getting work done was for me. I didn’t do it naturally. So, I had to pay attention to how I did it. Over the last half century or so, I’ve learned that there are three important things I need to think about and act on if I want to be an effective leader.

The Basics of Intrinsic Motivation

The experts on this are Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Since the 1970s, they’ve been working on self-determination theory, which defines the basics of the intrinsic motivators for most people. Their work has been cited more than 200,000 times by other scholars, but, more important to me, it helps me make sense of what’s going on at work.

They’ve identified three basic intrinsic motivators. The names they’ve given to them are: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.


Our youngest grandson eats with gusto. Sometimes he uses a spoon, but more often he grabs food with his hand and puts it in his mouth. He also puts it on his face, on the table, on his clothes, and on the floor. If you try to help him, though, he will push your hand away. He wants to do it himself.

That’s how most of us are. We want to be in control. We want to make the basic decisions about when and how things get done.

If you’re a boss, that means giving people as much freedom as you can. That will probably be uncomfortable. In my experience and research, most leaders are poor judges of how competent the people on their team really are. Most of us tend to hold on to our control too long.

One factor in holding on too long is that people make mistakes. In many organizations, mistakes are the evil that dare not speak its name. That may be true in your company, but it doesn’t need to be true on your team. Give people the freedom to make mistakes as long as they’re accountable for them. Give them as much control as you can without jeopardizing either their safety or long-term results. You’ll find that most people, most of the time, will pitch in enthusiastically. After all, having control is its own motivation.


When I was doing a lot of training, I used to ask my classes to describe a time in their life when it was great to go to work. While each description was a little different, they all had some things in common. One of those things was learning.

What Deci and Ryan taught us is that people really love to learn. In my experience and research, when people say that they have “fun at work” learning and growing are usually part of the fun.

What that means for you as a boss is that an important part of your job is helping people learn and succeed. Praise progress and effort, not just achievement. Give them resources to get better. Encourage them. Ask people about their learning and their progress.


Deci and Ryan’s third powerful intrinsic motivator is relatedness. People like to be part of something. They’d like to work with people they can count on and enjoy. For years, the pollsters at Gallup have been asking people whether they have a “best friend at work.” Their research indicates that when people have friends at work, they enjoy working with those people and they’re more likely to be productive.

Researchers at MIT said that the members of great teams provide social support for each other. That’s friends at work again. In my experience and research, I’ve discovered that one of the ways you can identify a great team is to listen for the laughter. People who are comfortable with each other and enjoy each other are constantly finding reasons to laugh.

What this means to you as a boss is that you must pay great attention to the social dynamics. Deal with issues quickly, they probably won’t be self-healing. Create that sense of what Google calls “psychological safety” by paying attention to the relationships and social dynamics of your team.

Bottom Line

If you’re a boss, pay attention to what we know about human motivation. Help people achieve autonomy and competence. Make your team a safe, productive, pleasant and friendly place to work.

Additional Reading

Susan Fowler’s excellent book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… And What Does, is the best book I’ve found on applying Ryan and Deci’s work to the day-to-day process of leading teams.

David Rock’s book, Your Brain at Work, has a slightly more nuanced model than the basic one developed by Deci and Ryan. He calls it the SCARF model, which stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. I think this is a great model, and it’s especially helpful when you have time away from a situation to analyze it. The reason I prefer the basic Deci and Ryan model as Susan Fowler presents it is that three elements are easier for most of us to handle without having to resort to some kind of reference.

Deci and Ryan’s book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, is excellent but aimed at a wider audience than the other two books.

If you’re responsible for the performance of a group, then you’re what I call a “boss.” I incorporated the insights I’ve gained over the decades into my e-book Become a Better Boss One Tip at A Time.

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