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Why Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose Isn’t Enough


GlenfodenThere is a lot of discussion lately about the “new” paradigm of motivation for our employees.  The discussion, driven by books such as "Drive" by Dan Pink and others before him, focus on the need to tap into a more noble vein and eliminate the plebian tools we used in the past, the awards and the incentives, and in their stead provide vision and direction but allow the individual to work autonomously, learn and grow and be part of a larger effort.  

I get that and I agree with it.  At a basic level this is good stuff.  But in a day-to-day business world it may not be effective. 

Strategic vision is important.  Getting people aligned is important.  But without incentives to really break behavioral inertial we’re doomed.

I could spend the rest of this post explaining why creating programs and plans that drive behavior are important.  I could harp on the role incentives and rewards play in those plans.  I can talk forever about designing programs that reward those that implement – and implement well.  But I’m not as good as the folks at the Daily Show are at bringing the problem home.

Comedy is truly a mirror on life – and in this case – a very, very clear mirror.  We can talk about autonomy, mastery and purpose as foundations for motivation but as this clip below clearly communicates (email viewers may need to click through to see video) – it is only a piece of the motivation puzzle and you need, dare I say it – self-interest driven programs that reward individual effort.  The same programs many are now abandoning in favor of the new age approach.

Watch.  Weep.  

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
An Energy-Independent Future
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

In closing…If you think about it – energy independence is the perfect new age issue that should work well in the Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose world.  It is something we each can do on our own (autonomy) – it’s not difficult to master (drive more efficient cars, use fluorescent bulbs, etc.) and what greater purpose is there than saving the planet, our country and the economy?  

Yet… well… The video said it all. 

I ask you –without getting into a political mud-fight – why did none of these leaders achieve their goals?  Was it a lack of vision?  Was it that we weren’t given the autonomy or weren’t allowed to use our own skills or was the purpose just too soft?  Why?

Originally posted on on Incentive Intelligence

24 Responses to “Why Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose Isn’t Enough”

  1. That video really says it all, doesn’t it? Thanks for sharing it with us to illustrate that whether we’re talking about oil consumption or work strategy, if leaders are not able to inspire action and give incentives to change behavior, we’re stuck in the mud.

  2. Paul Hebert says:

    Or stuck in the oil! Thanks Trish. I don’t want this to be an indictment of AMP – just that it isn’t a panacea – as the video illustrates. It takes something more than that to start a change. AMP may help with the long-term vision quest – and provide the foundation for change – but alone it doesn’t do the trick. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. fran melmed says:

    depressing. perhaps it’s our inability to accurately (willingly) judge the eventual impact of our today’s behavior. where else does that happen…

  4. Paul Hebert says:

    You are so right on the money Fran. I’ve discussed it before – we have a thing called “temporal discounting” meaning we devalue both incentives and punishments if they are in the future. With energy – big issue. Other places – I’m sure you’re aware – health and wellness. Because the benefits (no matter how large) are in the future – sometimes far into the future – the value of those benefits is discounted.

  5. Derek Irvine says:

    Interesting take, Paul, and I don’t necessarily disagree. I read your post earlier today and just read Tim Tolan’s post over on Fistful of Talent. It’s an interesting comparison. May have to blog about that myself.
    Tim’s post:

  6. Paul Hebert says:

    Thanks Derek. I just left a comment on Tim’s post – options require me to have cash to invest in them when they come due – unfortunately for many work-a-day folks that isn’t an option so while the option sounds interesting – if my base compensation isn’t high enough to allow me to save for the potential exercise date then they are worthless from the beginning.
    My point today was that all the promises and the vision in the world don’t break behavioral inertia – and when the payoff is so far into the future – it is even worse.
    Incentives done correctly can break the inertia WITHOUT damaging the link to purpose as some have indicated.

  7. Wow, what a unique way to demonstrate that having purpose and autonomy aren’t enough to get people moving in the same direction. Incentives may be what’s missing – I’m a firm believer in incentives – although we do see examples of people doing great things without traditional incentives in open source. Or perhaps what is missing is leadership. Without leadership to pull everyone together purpose loses its power.

  8. Bruce Lynn says:

    This post is absolutely right – “in a day-to-day business world it may not be effective.”
    Pink’s notions are not a ‘new’ paradigm at all. Pink’s book is a basically a re-packaging of Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs. The key thing that glosses over (though he does mention it) is the ‘Hierarchy’ part. People get to the ‘Vision’ level only after the lower more basic needs have been satisfied. This is a fundamental premise of Maslov and Pink himself acknowledges it. Unfortunately, the self-indulged Western society has gotten used to a pretty high level of consumption of the very lowest level ‘Physiological Needs’ before it even begins to consider the other 3 levels before getting to Self-Actualisation. Not everybody mind you. Many people who love Pink are the ones who (a) do have lower aspirations and needs in the lower hierarchies, and (b) are frankly quite well off so. I bet the average reader/fan of Drive is in the upper quartile of income.
    In fact, Pink’s ‘paradigm’ is a microcosmic subset of so many problems around us. He is espousing a short-cut solution. He is saying ‘forget all those other levels in the hierarchy…just go straight to the top one.’ People love it. A short cut. Fantastic. (Or handy if you are rich enough to be past all those other levels). Just like an easy mortgage is a short cut to a bigger car and an HD TV. Just like skimping on safety measures is a short cut to adding profit. Hopefully, events like these will be wake up calls to the charlatans who espouse that tight loan provisions, strict safety adherence, and basic monetary incentives are not quite so ‘plebian’. Doubling the price of gasoline would have more impact in 20 days than all the ‘Vision’ has had in 20 years.

    • Nick says:

      Not so sure. There’s a phrase I’ve come across – “most people think everyone else lives in Maslow’s basement”, which perfectly describes an attitude that’s prevalent in modern organisations – that people ‘lower’ down the hierarchy are only motivated by base elements like greed and reward and are resistant to change.  In fact the whole ‘change’ movement is complicit in this assumption.

      In fact most people in mdoern society are well past the base of Maslow’s pyramid. Once you have a room over your head and a slice of white bread in your hands, you’re done with the basics. Then you are looking for something to make your life meaningful and valuable, and modern organisations are signularly failing to provide that.

      What Dan Pink is saying is that instead of assuming people are living in the gutter and you need a great big fat lever to pull them out of their rut, let’s give them a little credit and aspire to some of their higher aspirations and who knows, we might actually meet them!

  9. Paul Hebert says:

    Thanks Laura. I also believe in incentives (hey – that’s what the blog is about) but I also believe you don’t need them sometimes. Incentives are ONE way to move behavior, not the ONLY way. I agree that there are many people who do things for the intrinsic desire (name any starving artist.) I think that for most organizations you need a foundation of AMP with a dash of incentives if you want to keep things moving in the direction you want them to.
    Thanks for weighing in.

  10. Paul Hebert says:

    Thanks Bruce – appreciate the thoughts. I do think that Pink is taking us up the hierarchy – but I don’t think Maslow is a good motivation theory either. Maslow has never been tested empirically and he himself said it was an idea looking for proof. None of which has happened.
    Most psych folks think it is an interesting idea but don’t hold it in high regard as a valid motivational theory. I posted on it here: http://incentive-intelligence.typepad.com/incentive_intelligence/2009/02/if-your-incentive-company-brings-up-maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-fire-them.html
    Your last sentence says it all IMHO.

  11. Carl says:

    By definition, autonomy is what the president of the US precisely does not have. Any applicable autonomy, purpose, and mastery is diluted by a factor of hundreds of millions of voters who may hold different ideas on the subject. All individual motivation is removed at this level of leadership… in your opinion, would any of these presidents could have solved the energy independence problem if you’d slipped them an extra performance incentive of, say, a hundred million dollars? Democratic leadership of masses is a different topic from autocratic leadership of a business.

  12. Paul Hebert says:

    I think you need to reread the post. My point was that ALL OF US have the ability to impact the problem but don’t. It isn’t about the President having autonomy… it’s about each of us having the autonomy to attack the problem. But we don’t. The point is that each of us have the ability to attack the problem and don’t. It’s not about what the President can do but about what each of us can.
    It is not the role of the President to DO these things…. than unfortunately is the reason we’re in the mess we’re in – we think they have the power to do them. It is the Presidents job to set the goal – and let US do these things. My point is that the three keys outlined by Dan Pink – don’t motivate us to do the things we think are right.

    • Adriana says:

      Paul, it’s kind of weird to reply to a post written 3 years ago, but if I got here through Google, other new readers may, too :-).

      I think you make a good point, but attacking the wrong cause. I disagree we all have the autonomy to attack the problem, and even the “sense of purpose” in your example is very diluted. When in 1961 President John F. Kennedy announced the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade, he established a clear purpose, and he didn’t expect “all of us” to impact the problem individually. Rather, he asked the Congress to “go above and beyond the increases” he had earlier requested for space activities, to provided the funds to meet some specific national goals clearly described. The right levels of resources, accountability, and support, in the form of enormous human efforts and expenditures, was what made Project Apollo a reality by 1969.

      Like you, I believe “incentives to break behavioral inertia” are important, but I don’t think it’s always necessary to use individual reward to achieve that objective. If you are providing the right resources to people, paying them reasonable wages, encouraging collaboration, and creating the sense of clarity of purpose like the “man on the moon” address provided, things can happen. And we can’t really expect that a speech of “energy-independent future” without this other context would work the same way to generate the necessary levels of “autonomy, mastery and purpose” to break that inertia.

      • Paul Hebert says:

        There is no real timeline on the web is there?

        Again, my point is that energy dependance is an issue we CAN individually impact. Going to the moon wasn’t. Well – until the Xprize came along it wasn’t. In the example you offer the barrier to success was money. In my example the barrier to success is our own INDIVIDUAL commitment to the purpose, our own autonomy to act. All of which are present in the energy independence situation. We can – in a market sense – make this happen without needing government. Just start buying the right things. But… we don’t because we don’t have the incentives to do it.

        • Adriana says:

          Thanks for the reply, Paul. First, let me clarify that I do agree that individual incentives will work and even be necessary under many circumstances (like in the case of “tasks initially of low interest”, as mentioned in the book “Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Resolving the Controversy). In other cases, when there is enough mastery-autonomy-purpose (as in some social projects I developed in the past) intrinsic motivation was more than sufficient to allow us to achieve stretch goals.

          But I think that if the point of your example in the article is “energy dependency is an issue we CAN individually impact”, it’s not very well articulated. The video is about the idea of “moving beyond a petroleum-based economy”, “maximizing conservation”, and “maximizing the development of alternative sources of energy”, which aren’t things that individuals can realistically achieve on their own. I know a lot of people (myself included) who do our best: living in energy-efficient building, choosing hybrid or electric cars, and so on. But that’s a very different story than solving the energy crisis or dependency on oil, the topics discussed in Stewart’s video.

          • Paul Hebert says:

            We can go round and round on this but the point I was trying to make (obviously poorly) is that as a collective – if we ALL decide we want to be independant of oil – we can accomplish it through market forces by changing our behavior.

            You’re right in that individually we can’t do it alone. But individually – collectively – we have the ability to impact the direction. If 10 million people decided to buy electric cars tomorrow the market would respond and electric cars would be cheaper and better. But we don’t because individually – we are self interested. That is my only point. Incentives play a role – even in areas we traditionally think they wouldn’t.

            I am suggesting – that absent incentives we cannot get enough people to move a market. With incentives we can. Even in a complex and emotionally charged area – incentives can have a place. I wasn’t trying to solve a problem – just highlight that relying on our own individual self interest – in this scenario – or in a business one with employees – can have issues as well.

            There are always examples where AMP works – and there will be examples where it doesn’t. My goal was to communicate that one shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just because some attorney with a good research team found a 50 year old study and converted that into a thin discussion on what motivates Humans 2.0 – it’s just not a good strategy for success. There is more to the discussion than simply saying – give them a purpose, let them get better at doing it and leave them alone. It just doesn’t always work that way.

          • Diana says:

            I don’t agree entirely with your thoughts, Paul, and I think you make a telling point (a Fredian slip :-) in your last sentence – “give them a purpose”. You can’t give someone a purpose, it has to be innate, self-directed. Studies on climate change show that people who see it as a moral issue and have a strong set of values around it (you could call this a sense of purpose) are the ones who make the greatest steps to change.

            Because energy dependence, sustainability and climate change are highly complex subjects, few people have the time to get across the importance of it (it has low salience to their every day lives whereas convenience is hugely salient to busy people). Because of this, people don’t have a strong purpose regarding what they can do. More important than incentives, you need to build a sense of self-efficacy in individuals, ie people need to feel that they have the ability to achieve mastery and also that what they do can make a difference (in other words your sense of purpose is eroded by seeing that what you can do doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this ole world).

            This is where I think Pink’s theory is lacking. Rather than equating Pink’s theory to Maslow, as one of your commenters does, have a look instead at Deci & Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory which posits autonomy, competence (or mastery) and affiliation as key drivers of human behaviour. There is a lot of support for this theory and if you look at it alongside Cialdini’s work on influence, you will see how important social proof (affiliation or belonging) is in driving human behaviours. Seeing what your neighbours does is a huge motivator, so the key is to get people to work together.

            Can I also just note, that incentives have been shown time and again to reduce intrinsic motivation. People think oh I am being paid, that must mean this is no fun, so if the money stops, so will I. This has been demonstrated with children at play, creating artworks. It’s the stories you tell yourself about what you are doing that is important.

            You can however, motivate people very well through benchmarking how well they are doing against other people (in line with SDT and that belonging motivator, this is very effective). You have to be extremely careful with reward incentives which may convert intrinsic motivation to extrinsic and don’t produce lasting change so are they sustainable? This by the by, is another reason why we shouldn’t be paying CEOs huge sums of money, as it doesn’t make them work any better. Pink’s theory suggests that a sense of purpose will make them work better instead. I do agree with Pink up to a point, but SDT explains more, my gut feel is that a sense of purpose is more likely an outreach of the combination of the other factors. Anyway sorry to ramble :-)

          • Paul Hebert says:

            I probably did slip and I probably should have said something closer to “let them find a purpose” versus give them one.

            As to the Deci/Ryan discussion – I also think this is valid and can explain a lot of our individual motivations. My only concern there is that business doesn’t operate on individual time tables but on market time – and as business people we need to drive outcomes whether the subject (ie: employee) is ready or not. Waiting for someone to catch up doesn’t always fit my schedule. SDT is pretty much an individually driven time table.

            Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic that has never really held water in a work setting. In fact – there is more evidence than not that extrinsic does work in business than there is that it doesn’t.
            Sure… for activities we ALREADY have an intrinsic desire to do and accomplish external rewards to have an impact. For all other areas extrinsic is very effective. I point you to this paper by Eisenberger and Cameron: http://www.psychology.uh.edu/faculty/Eisenberger/files/16_Detrimental_Effects_of_Reward_Reality_or_Myth.pdf where they conclude that: “Our analysis of a quarter century of accumulated research provides little evidence that reward reduces intrinsic task interest.”

            Maybe extrinsic rewards are a bad idea when drawing pictures in 2nd grade – but not in in an office building.

            I am also a huge fan of Cialdini.

            I don’t disagree that there are a variety of ways to skin this cat. In fact my whole point of the post was that there are MANY ways to influence behavior and provide an environment that is enables people to do their best, excel and still have fun. AMP isn’t the only one and in many cases not the most desirable one.

            Thanks for weighing in! These are good conversations to have.

  13. Reed says:

    Your conclusion is really as specious as they get. On the energy issue, if you get the full resources of the oil companies – who have more or less owned the federal government for years – working against us, and we’ll obviously have to work pretty hard to get altruism to take effect in a strong way. This is why these leaders have made so little headway.

    Mr. Pink’s point is made in a more or less utopian circumstance where those who are caretakers/managers of the employees are not evil money grubbing scum. Big difference. It’s a good place to start that conversation. In fact, it’s the one real argument against Pink’s vision is that he doesn’t deal with the inevitable evil that’s out there, who are not wanting things to change in any way.

    Martin Luther King had dream. You’ve got a gripe.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Thanks for the comment Reed. I’m not drawing any conclusion other than to say that individually we can (the public) influence this issue but don’t – regardless of what the oil companies do or don’t do. If the general public wants something done we can do it. Smoking in public is another area where the public opinion has driven a major change in behavior. I’m must suggesting that AMP isn’t always the best way to drive behavior in the short term. Long term it has a place.

      And yes… I do have a gripe.

  14. Ronald says:

    Interesting. I’m convinced that its about individual effort but that all of us individually feel that a. We don’t have enough influence, making the goal (or purpose) somewhat abstract and b. don’t suffer enough “pain” to be pushed in the right direction. Even me, living in Europe now and paying over $100 to fill up my car still drive a lot…

    Nice comment though. Ps where did you get your gripe?

  15. Bex Hewett says:

    It’s an interesting post and good to challenge these assumptions but I’m just not sure I agree…

    The theory behind Dan Pink’s book (Self-Determination Theory) doesn’t say that money doesn’t drive behaviour. Of course it does, we all see that every day. It’s also not saying that individuals don’t expect to be paid for the work they do. That’s a basic characteristic of paid work.

    But…the research also suggests that there are potential side effects to motivation which is driven primarily by financial incentives. By making incentives contingenct on achieveing a certain level of performance, making a sale, producing a widget etc organisations make that reward contingent and it detracts people’s attention from what could otherwise be an interesting or important task. This ‘controlled’ motivation is associated with higher levels of stress, lower satisfaction and engagement. On the other hand, if individuals work in an environment which satisfies their basic psychological needs they can thrive which means better wellbeing, engagement, satisfaction and probably performance as well (and certainly not worse).

    Of course work is a complex place and it’s not as black and white as that. Repetitive jobs, for example, might not be inherently interesting so require an additional incentive. There are also many different types of reward and not all of those will be ‘controlling’.

    But the basic premise is sound.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      The point of the post is exactly what your comment says – it’s not enough. There are many other ways to drive behavior and the AMP model ALONE cannot accomplish everything. My gripe was with all the world say – give up on incentives – don’t use them – they don’t work. The real truth is they work too well – the drive behavior. Badly designed they drive bad behavior and create unintended consequences. My point is that in the real world – not the book writing world where I can use classroom research outcomes – incentives play a major role in communicating goals, values and direction.

      AMP-based efforts are good too. Providing meaning is key for long term engagement. I just was commenting on the fact that too many people were throwing the baby out with the bathwater and the bath tub.

      Sometimes the goal is behavior change – not engagement.

      I can say this – if I have to compete in the market – I want to have incentives in my toolbox.

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