What Motivates Us?

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

It is now commonly accepted that people are more likely to perform at their best in complex tasks when motivated by internal rather than external factors: an inner drive is more motivating than a separable outcome e.g. a threat or reward.

Many of us are familiar with Dan Pink’s book, Drive, published in 2009. But having re-read this recently and dipped into the subject a little more I am left asking some questions.

Pink identifies three principal sources of intrinsic motivation: autonomy (‘the desire to direct our own lives’), mastery (‘the urge to get better and better at something’) and purpose (“having a cause larger than oneself”).

For over 40 years Richard Ryan and Edward Deci have been developing their Self-Determination Theory at the University of Rochester, New York. They provide ample evidence that intrinsic motivation tends to involve meeting three fundamental human needs: autonomy, competence (mastery) and relatedness (connection with other people).

Pink acknowledges his debt to Ryan and Deci, however, it is not clear to me what his justification is for dropping relatedness from the equation. And his introduction of purpose seems to be based more on opinion than research.

Research vs Opinion

This manoeuvre comes across to me as being problematic. In my view, relatedness is the most significant of the categories identified by Ryan and Deci. Current literature is very clear that the brain has evolved as an organ of relationship.

In his recent book, ‘Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect’, Prof. Matthew D. Lieberman explains how our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental than our need for food and shelter. Human relationships simply cannot be left out of a theory of motivation.

Furthermore, Pink seems to contradict himself on the matter of purpose. The problem is that he is presenting an argument for intrinsic motivation and yet most of the time purpose fits the definition of an extrinsic motivator. One of his examples of a purpose is ‘environmental prosperity worldwide’, a wonderful, albeit separable outcome.

Purpose vs Self-Esteem

Purpose needs to be given its correct place in the arrangement of ideas in this conversation. To do this, we need to remember what we are talking about. The debate concerns what enables us to arrive at and maintain high levels of motivation in order to achieve successful outcomes or, in other words, achieve a purpose.

Ryan and Deci’s 3 fundamental human needs fall into place as the strongest factors that maintain our motivation when working towards this. We are now free to ask a more interesting question: why are those 3 factors are so effective? I have two suggestions.

First of all, I think they work because they provide us with almost instantaneous returns. I enjoy my freedom, take satisfaction in my improvement and feel connected – all without having to wait for a future outcome.

Secondly, I believe that the end result of those benefits is increased self-esteem. I feel good about myself because I am in control, getting better and interacting with others. Elias Porter, amongst many others argue that self-esteem is a universal motivator. It looks like Ryan and Deci simply found some of the most sustainable ways to nurture it.

What does this mean for leaders?

Leaders often ask ‘how can I increase motivation in my team members’? Perhaps the best answer to this question is, ‘how could you nurture their self-esteem?’