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The Philosophy of Motivation

2012 January 1

Peter Drucker, the legendary management theorist, told us that we have to “accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer.”  

In other words, we can’t just order people around and expect them to do what we want, we have to get them to want what we want.  An entire industry of compensation consultants has emerged to answer that question, but nevertheless most employees feel unmotivated.  Why is that?

We need to drastically change how we think about incentives.  For years, compensation specialists have focused on rational benefits to employment, with poor results.  We’ve known for a long time that people don’t behave rationally.  Motivation is primarily an emotional business and at its root is not economic exchange, but human dignity.

A Failed Rational Model

Traditionally, employment has been viewed economically.  Employees exchange their labor for pay with which they can procure goods and services they enjoy.  They also value leisure time with their family and friends, training to increase their economic value and so on. Therefore, or so the thinking goes, motivating employees entails giving them more of the things that they want.

However, it should be clear that there is something wrong with that notion.  Many billionaires, after all, work obsessively long after monetary rewards have lost their meaning.  Highly skilled doctors forsake monetary rewards to go to remote parts of the world with Doctors Without Borders. People act contrary to economic interest all the time.

When motivated people wake up in the morning, they don’t think, “I have to send this e-mail, so that I can earn a certain amount towards my rent, a fraction of my vacation time and a sliver of my health benefits.  They want to achieve something.

As I argued previously, the reliance on rational explanations for behavior reflects a failed philosophy from centuries past.  In actuality, we base very little of our decision making on reason, most are emotionally driven.  Evolution has wired us that way.

The Importance of Dignity

Of course, accepting that employees are emotionally driven presents a problem.  We certainly can’t condone people throwing tantrums in meetings or freaking out in the hallways, nor can we make ourselves fully accountable for the happiness of others.  What we can do, however, is act in accordance with dignity.

Immanuel Kant, back in the 18th Century, explained that treating people with dignity means treating them as ends in themselves, rather than as simply means and that’s really the crux of it.  Where many organizations start with the question of how they can get employees to do more of what they want them to do, high performing ones focus on helping them achieve more.

In other words, motivation is much more about intrinsic rewards than extrinsic rewards.
Motivated people join an organization in good faith and expect to find meaning in their work, instead they get an incentive program.  No wonder they get discouraged.

Daniel Pink’s “Drive” Framework

Of course, there’s more than just philosophy at stake here, but results.  While it may be nice that employees feel good about what they do, unless there is clear evidence that doing so will produce better outcomes, then it’s all just fluffy talk.

In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink cites on decades of studies that show that for problem solving and creative tasks (i.e. most of what professionals do today), incentive pay often decreases productivity, especially for tasks that require creative thinking. He outlines his research in this video:

Pink identifies three factors crucial to motivation:

Autonomy:  Being able to organize and direct your own work is essential to dignity. Google is famous for the success of its “20% rule,” which lets (in fact demands) employees spend 20% of their time on their own projects.

However, it’s not just hi-tech companies that can benefit.  Whole Foods has achieved out-sized results in supermarkets by encouraging teams to self-manage.

Mastery: People like to get better at things.  They will even do it for free.  Why is it that Wikipedia, open source software platforms like Apache and Linux and blogs can unlock an enormous amount of creativity but many for-profit corporations cannot?

People expend enormous time and effort on these things because mastery is an end in itself, not a means to an end.

Purpose:  Uber-guru Gary Hamel, in his book The Future of Management, emphasizes the need to build a “community of purpose.”  While profits are important, the most talented people want to feel that their work contributes something more to the world than just a better bottom line.

The Passion Economy

Clearly, something has changed.  In times past, Rockefeller, Carnegie or Vanderbilt didn’t worry about how employees felt.  They were much more likely to respond to disgruntled workers with Pinkerton guards than with autonomy, mastery and purpose.  We have left the industrial economy behind long ago, we are now in a passion economy.

That makes all the difference.  In the industrial age, value was created by harnessing energy.  In the passion economy, value is created through superior design.  Google’s algorithms, Apple’s user interfaces, Whole foods selection and service, they all were created through passionate employees working with autonomy, master and purpose.

However, what’s often missed is that these companies succeed not just through superior practices, but superior philosophy.  They recognize that their employees achievements are not only a means to attaining greater objectives, they are, in fact, ends in themselves.

– Greg

14 Responses
  1. January 1, 2012

    Fantastic contribution to the world’s future wealth and happiness here – Greg you are doing a GREAT JOB.

    Happy New Year.

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Edward,

    Happy New Year to you as well.

    – Greg

  2. January 1, 2012

    Thanks Greg, this timely reminder that human dignity is an essential component of success should resonate with many. Here’s to a “really new”year.

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks, David. All the best in the New Year!

    – Greg

  3. January 2, 2012

    Wow! Thanks Greg, very inspiring thoughts. I’d just like to add one thing though to the Purpose of Pink’s framework, and I guess this is just me ranting a bit: in order to make people fell like they’re contributing to something bigger, we need more “inspiring” leaders (aka the Steve Jobs type) but these kind of people are rare. Of course it isn’t only the leaders, it’s also the products and innovative ideas behind them, nevertheless it’s very difficult to teach leaders to inspire. This is a challenge to which I unfortunately have no solution. I’m beginning to think that it’s talent, you’re born with it or not.
    Anyways, thanks for this great article, I’m loving it!

    Btw, happy new year to all the Digital Tonto readers 😉

    Kind Regards,

    Greg Reply:


    I think that’s true. Purpose comes from strong leadership. However, I don’t think it’s talent, but belief. In order to inspire, you must first believe yourself.

    Happy New Year to you too.

    – Greg

    chris Reply:

    I have to disagree — Purposes are bigger than inspirational leaders, they aren’t created and they don’t “come from” leaders. Leaders can lay-out a path to fulfill the Purpose, and in some cases they may be the first to identify the Purpose as a feasible business. I think Jobs did this with Apple; first that computers should be accessible to people, then that design excellence is something that could be core to the user experience. Jobs didn’t create this Purpose, though he clearly articulated it and surrounded himself with partners and employees who believed in the Purpose and brought it to fruition. But a true purpose is Intrinsic, that’s Pinks point, and extrinsic motivation/inspiration isnt the same. In order to tap into shared purpose, you have to “get the right people on the bus”.

    Greg Reply:

    Good points, although I’m not sure it’s quite right. An organizations’s purpose might not always originate with a particular leader (as Mintzberg’s views on emergent strategy point out), but leaders need to give voice to the purpose and focus the organization in that direction.

    – Greg

  4. January 7, 2012

    Very nice presentation of trobles of stangled human potential. The philosophy of the organization shapes lives of many people and hence people themselves.
    Nice thoughts. Thank You

    Greg Reply:

    Thx Tejal. Have a great week!

    – Greg

  5. January 9, 2012

    I bet nobody paid you to write this.

    Greg Reply:

    Good bet:-)

  6. December 2, 2012

    I just read your article and watched the video. Interesting information. I have definitely found that employees need motivation that comes from within – to benefit on a personal level such as; stronger character, expanding growth away from the comfort zone, becoming a better communicator, etc.. All of these become personal assets that the employee takes home as a result of tackling issues in the work day. Not only do they benefit then within their career but also outside of work in their home life. I enjoyed your article and look forward to more of the same!


    Greg Reply:

    Good thoughts Judy!

    Hope to see you again soon!

    – Greg

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