Build an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation Flourishes

50 years after Douglas McGregor’s classic, The Human Side of Enterprise, too many managers still have not learned that using extrinsic motivation is not an effective way to manage complex human systems (organizations). The issue is important to me because their is a huge amount of poor management based on this thinking (focused on how people need to be fixed/motivated) instead of fixing what management really needs to fix.

You can succeed as a manager, and progress in your career, by viewing your role as helping people do their jobs well. As McGregor shows workers want to do a good job. He termed managing with this understanding theory y; and theory x is the idea that people should be motivated with carrots and sticks because they are not going to do work otherwise. Organizations have often so systemically de-motivated people they seem to have lost that desire. What you need to focus on is not motivating them with cheap tricks. Instead focus on eliminating the factors that de-motivate them.

Often simplistic motivation is seen as a replacement for fixing management performance (improving the management systems…). Instead managers should focus on eliminating the sources of de-motivation in the workplace. If you need hints, Dilbert does a good job of showing you what management does that de-motivates.

To succeed as a manager assume people wish to do a good job. If employees are not performing some task well, the manager needs to figure out what is wrong with the system that leads to this outcome (not what is wrong with the employees). When a manager views the problem as one of motivating workers that puts the problem within the worker. They need to be changed. That is the wrong strategy, most of the time. Instead you will have much more success if you seek to improve the system to improve performance.

I believe there is often a burden to overcome. As people have their intrinsic motivation crushed time after time day after day, week after week, year after year they try to protect themselves by shutting off their hope to achieve intrinsic motivation at work. You may have to show you really are serious before they will open up again. You have to make real changes and do so consistently that shows respect for people. Intrinsic motivation is a strong force and a few earlier adopters will quickly come along in all but the most broken organizations. You can build on that success (and eliminat more and more de-motivation) to grow intrinsic motivation in more and more people.

Instead of trying to motivate people to put the customer first, create an environment where the customer is put first (Crutchfield, Trader Joe’s, Southwest). Instead of trying to re-motivate people after soul crushing meetings eliminate the meetings. Focus on providing meaning to people. Don’t put up slogans, then take actions that contradict them, and then try to motivate people. Don’t have a marketing plan that tells customers to expect one thing then force staff to deal with the results of what you actually provide, connect them with the importance of their contributions. Don’t tell people they are the most important asset, then layoff hundreds and give the CEO a huge bonus, and then see a motivation problem.

Build a culture with respect for people that encourages joy in work.

Related: Incentivizing Behavior Doesn’t Improve ResultsStop Demotivating Me!Why Extrinsic Motivation FailsMotivate or Eliminate De-MotivationThe Defect Black Market

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12 Responses to Build an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation Flourishes

  1. davidburkus says:

    Great example. Except I think I think Southwest and Trader Joe's might be examples of companies who put employees first and let service spill over.

  2. Chris Young says:

    Great take John! I find that benchmarking the motivating values inherent in a position and assessing for job candidates who possess them is a great way to add intrinsic motivation to a job.

    I have chosen your post for my Rainmaker ‘Fab Five’ blog picks of the week ( to share your thoughts with my readers.

    Be well!

  3. Wally Bock says:

    Very well stated, John. The very idea of “motivating” other people assumes that the people are the problem. Most often that’s not the case. If people aren’t doing the job you want, look first to see if they have the ability to do it. They may need training or coaching. Look to see if they have the resources (time, budget, authority, support, people). In my research on excellent supervisors, that’s exactly the approach the great ones took. It’s what I recommend in my Working Supervisor’s Support Kit ( ).

  4. Wally Bock says:

    Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

    Wally Bock

  5. Guy Farmer says:

    Great points. It’s noteworthy how many companies still think that if they only talk at their employees long enough or cram enough information down their gullets that they’ll be more motivated. Like you’ve so ably mentioned motivation occurs from within a person when they are using their talents and abilities and fell valued in the workplaces. Savvy leaders would do well to learn how to praise employees, encourage them to use their innate talents and then get out of the way.

  6. shaun sayers says:

    Nice article Jon. I think it is probably because a lot of quality professionals come into “quality” from engineering disciplines that the human dynamic is not often understood very well and taken fully into consideration when the management system is developed. I find that a lot of people yearn for the certainty and predictability that well maintained machinery brings, when people, to be truthful, are far more fickle and we have to understand what makes them tick. They DON’T always do what they are told, they DON’T always work in the best interests of the team and they DON’T always act based on what is rational. Inconvenient though this might be, refusing to acknowledge it won’t make it disappear

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