What Motivates Us To Do Great Work?

What motivates us to do great work? It’s an age-old question. But the age-old answers – rewards, recognition, money, stability – no longer seem to suffice. As we’ve shifted to a knowledge-based economy, it turns out that what drives us has shifted, too.

Recent research reveals that when creative thinking is part and parcel of your job description, external motivation just doesn’t work. The year-end bonus, the promotion, the basic dangled carrot approach – these things don’t inspire better performance.

What really gets creatives fired up is, well, ourselves. That is, intrinsic motivation. If we can imagine an achievement, see ourselves progressing toward that goal, and understand that we are gaining new skills and knowledge, we will be driven to do great work.

In a recent post, science writer Jonah Lehrer cites an interesting study about “self-talk” – the running commentary we always have going on in our heads. Fifty-three undergraduate students were divided into two groups and then challenged to solve anagrams:

“The first group was told to prepare for an anagram-solving task by thinking, for one minute, about whether they would work on anagrams. This is the ‘Will I?’ condition, which the scientists refer to as the ‘interrogative form of self-talk’. The second group, in contrast, was told to spend one minute thinking that they would work on anagrams. This is the ‘I Will’ condition, or the ‘declarative form of self-talk’. Both groups were then given ten minutes to solve as many anagrams as possible.”

Contrary to what you might expect, the “Will I?” group solved significantly more puzzles. The uncertainty created by the question, allowed the students to decide to challenge themselves, and then excel. Lehrer sums it up:

“Subsequent experiments by the scientists suggested that the power of the ‘Will I?’ condition resides in its ability to elicit intrinsic motivation. (We are intrinsically motivated when we are doing an activity for ourselves, because we enjoy it. In contrast, extrinsic motivation occurs when we’re doing something for a paycheck or any ‘extrinsic’ reward.) By interrogating ourselves, we set up a well-defined challenge that we can master. And it is this desire for personal fulfillment – being able to tell ourselves that we solved the anagrams – that actually motivates us to keep on trying.”

In his latest book, Drive, author Daniel Pink debunks the power of external motivators, and expands on the intrinsic motivators that inspire us to do great work. Using research from a study out of MIT, Pink argues that traditional rewards – external motivators like a year-end bonus – only elicit better performance from people doing rote tasks. But once the barest amount of brainpower is required, higher financial rewards fail to produce better work. In fact, they actually inspire worse performance.

For creative thinkers, Pink identifies three key motivators: autonomy (self-directed work), mastery (getting better at stuff), and purpose (serving a greater vision). All three are intrinsic motivators. Even a purpose, which can seem like an external motivator, will be internalized if you truly believe in it.

A recent Harvard study further reinforces the power of intrinsic motivation. After tracking 1200 knowledge workers, Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer found that the # 1 motivator for the employees was progress – the feeling that they were moving forward and achieving a greater goal. They write:

“On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak. On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest.”

As creative thinkers, we want to make progress, and we want to move big ideas forward. So, it’s no surprise that the best motivator is being empowered to take action.

When it comes to recommendations for creative leaders, Amabile and Kramer don’t mince words: “Scrupulously avoid impeding progress by changing goals autocratically, being indecisive, or holding up resources.” In short, give your team members what they need to thrive, and then get out of the way.

More insights on: Leadership, Motivation

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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