Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Posted on Feb 16, 2012 in Mentorship, Strategy

I just watched a great TED talk from 2009 where Dan Pink makes the case for better models of incentives & punishments. This is helpful to understand. But the really interesting part is how leadership teams, business owners and entrepreueneurs implement it.

Pink shows that traditional carrot & stick modes don’t work for out-of-the-box creative problem solving jobs. What works for mechanical skills, i.e. ‘sweeter carrot’ equals higher performance does’t work for tasks requiring even moderate amount of cognitive skill.

START-UPS have it easier

If you’re starting a company from scratch and have control over the culture you build, it is much easier for the leadership team to establish these 21st century ways of motivating employees. You can hire the right people who will fit your culture. You can create job titles to reflect your non-hierarchal structure and you can design the environments to communicate these values. But what about organizations who are well established and cannot quickly make radical changes?

Change is hard

How would this work in a heavily structured environment with lots of engrained hierarchy and moving parts–like IBM. In the new model of motivation where autonomy, mastery and purpose are king, what does the day actually look like? Can meetings suddenly be optional? Can you tell managers that they are no longer called “managers” and will also be responsible for more creative problem solving? Probably like most things you start slowly at the micro level. You determine which positions require mechanical skills and evaluate how well their incentives are working. If they are working well, you leave them alone. Then evaluate the current model of incentives for your more creative, cognitive-demanding posts. Determine how you can build more autonomy, encourage mastery and renew their sense of purpose.

Make better bread

When a bread maker asked how he could make a greater contribution to the church, John Calvin replied, “make better bread”. My guess is that if your employees have lost a sense of purpose and drive for mastery, it means that as an organization, you aren’t doing anything special. And if you are doing something special, you have an opportunity andĀ obligationĀ to internally communicate it. Give your team a better vision to believe in. Recognize that your success is largely determined by how much you are contributing to society, and every bit counts whether it is making bread or educating teenagers or massaging sore muscles.

Incentive Create Your Own Adventure

Could we also have an organization collaborate with its employees to create incentives? What kind of culture results from having employees work for exactly what they want to work for. I think this solution touches on one of the key points of the research findings that Dan Pink is presenting. People motivated by the three 21st century incentives are people who are willing to work for a lot less if you give them exactly what they want most.


So if there are any design agencies out there who are willing to pay me in design chairs, a discount at net-a-porter and shopping sprees at Whole Foods, I am at your service. As long as I can bike to work.