Career satisfaction,  Coaching,  Happiness,  Success Strategy,  Work Culture

What Intrinsically Motivates Us (Hint: It’s not money)

David, a tech leader and a father of two, was in a big dilemma about a job offer. The money was higher than what he was making in his current job, but something else didn’t feel right. His friends said he should take it – “after all, you do the work for money, like a mercenary.”

Humans are driven only by money, and materialistic rewards is a false premise.  Research shows that additional money doesn’t increase our motivation when we have enough money to meet our regular needs (higher than just basics). Especially if the work needs creativity or deep thinking, money doesn’t guarantee higher performance. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink said, Autonomy, Mastery, and Contributing to a bigger purpose are the three factors that intrinsically drive us.

  • Autonomy is the sense that I have a choice in what I do when I do.
  • Mastery means I am learning new things; I am gaining expertise.
  • Contributing to a bigger purpose gives people the fulfillment that I am part of something much more significant, making a difference in the bigger community.

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester identified the six main reasons why people work.  Those are play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. As one can see that the first three are more positive and increase performance, while the latter three decrease performance.

Positive factors

  • Play– I enjoy the work.
  • Purpose – My work impacts something bigger than me that I care about.
  • Potential – I am good at what I do; I learn and grow by doing my work. It creates future opportunities for me.

Negative factors

  • Emotional pressure – I do it because others expect me to do it; my identity is attached to it.
  • Economic pressure – I do it because I am dependent on the income/reward and want to avoid any consequence/punishment.
  • Inertia – I don’t know why I am doing it, and I don’t have the energy to look for anything else.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi found that a high-performing culture maximizes the play, purpose, and potential felt by its people and minimizes the emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. This is known as creating total motivation (ToMo).

Aaron Hurst made a case in his book, The Purpose Economy, that the newer generations are caring more about making an impact towards a bigger purpose than buying stuff (like owning a house or a car). I saw a different but somewhat similar comment by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus in his book, A World of Three Zeros. He said the economists often use too simple of a money-based model that incorrectly describes human motivation.

All such research is available, and still, many of us fall for the old carrot and stick model when motivating ourselves or others. When I shared this research with David, he got a new perspective. He realized why the higher-paying job was not attracting him. Previously he thought something was wrong if he didn’t go for the “rational” choice. After our conversation, he got more clarity about his currencies – his core values. He graciously turned down that offer. He sees work in a refreshingly different way these days – his workdays have become much more enjoyable.


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