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Big Ideas

What Motivates Us To Do Great Work?

Could making ideas happen be its own reward? Recent research indicates that creatives find progress more rewarding than money...

What motivates us to do great work? It’s an age-old question. But the age-old answers – rewards, recognition, money, stability – no longer seem to suffice. As we’ve shifted to a knowledge-based economy, it turns out that what drives us has shifted, too.

Recent research reveals that when creative thinking is part and parcel of your job description, external motivation just doesn’t work. The year-end bonus, the promotion, the basic dangled carrot approach – these things don’t inspire better performance.

What really gets creatives fired up is, well, ourselves. That is, intrinsic motivation. If we can imagine an achievement, see ourselves progressing toward that goal, and understand that we are gaining new skills and knowledge, we will be driven to do great work.

In a recent post, science writer Jonah Lehrer cites an interesting study about “self-talk” – the running commentary we always have going on in our heads. Fifty-three undergraduate students were divided into two groups and then challenged to solve anagrams:

“The first group was told to prepare for an anagram-solving task by thinking, for one minute, about whether they would work on anagrams. This is the ‘Will I?’ condition, which the scientists refer to as the ‘interrogative form of self-talk’. The second group, in contrast, was told to spend one minute thinking that they would work on anagrams. This is the ‘I Will’ condition, or the ‘declarative form of self-talk’. Both groups were then given ten minutes to solve as many anagrams as possible.”

Contrary to what you might expect, the “Will I?” group solved significantly more puzzles. The uncertainty created by the question, allowed the students to decide to challenge themselves, and then excel. Lehrer sums it up:

“Subsequent experiments by the scientists suggested that the power of the ‘Will I?’ condition resides in its ability to elicit intrinsic motivation. (We are intrinsically motivated when we are doing an activity for ourselves, because we enjoy it. In contrast, extrinsic motivation occurs when we’re doing something for a paycheck or any ‘extrinsic’ reward.) By interrogating ourselves, we set up a well-defined challenge that we can master. And it is this desire for personal fulfillment – being able to tell ourselves that we solved the anagrams – that actually motivates us to keep on trying.”

In his latest book, Drive, author Daniel Pink debunks the power of external motivators, and expands on the intrinsic motivators that inspire us to do great work. Using research from a study out of MIT, Pink argues that traditional rewards – external motivators like a year-end bonus – only elicit better performance from people doing rote tasks. But once the barest amount of brainpower is required, higher financial rewards fail to produce better work. In fact, they actually inspire worse performance.

For creative thinkers, Pink identifies three key motivators: autonomy (self-directed work), mastery (getting better at stuff), and purpose (serving a greater vision). All three are intrinsic motivators. Even a purpose, which can seem like an external motivator, will be internalized if you truly believe in it.

A recent Harvard study further reinforces the power of intrinsic motivation. After tracking 1200 knowledge workers, Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer found that the # 1 motivator for the employees was progress – the feeling that they were moving forward and achieving a greater goal. They write:

“On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak. On days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest.”

As creative thinkers, we want to make progress, and we want to move big ideas forward. So, it’s no surprise that the best motivator is being empowered to take action.

When it comes to recommendations for creative leaders, Amabile and Kramer don’t mince words: “Scrupulously avoid impeding progress by changing goals autocratically, being indecisive, or holding up resources.” In short, give your team members what they need to thrive, and then get out of the way.

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (31)
  • Christoph

    I honestly don’t know about other companies, but the one I work for is really focused on the year-end benefit. Surprisingly, and I guess this is strongly connected with the age of my co-workers, which are all older than me (I’m in my mid twenties), this absolutely works. I don’t know what really motivates them, but the bonus seems to be one of the big things.

    For me personally, my biggest motivation is seeing the bigger thing behind the work I do and getting better and wiser at things. Currently I see big differences between the way my boss tries to motivate me (if he does at all) and what would really help me to stay motivated even through hard times.

  • Strive4impact

    Tony Robbins says that the most basic of human instincts is to gain pleasure and avoid pain. Turns out that avoiding pain is actually the stronger motivator. How to Win Friends and Influence People says that the thing we get the most pleasure from is feeling like we are important.

    The challenge is that inside of a company, it’s hard to cater to what gives each person a feeling of importance. For some, the year end bonus tells them that what they have done is important.

    For others, the year end bonus is hollow if they can’t see how their contribution was important.

    It takes an in-tune and developed manager to recognize what gives each employee a sense of importance, and to offer feedback that motivates them accordingly.

    This is even tougher being self-employed, when you have to analyze what gives you the greatest feeling of importance, and spending the majority of your time working on that thing. For me, it’s become a real challenge to focus on this when there are bills to be paid and I know that it takes money to keep the business (and my life) moving successfully forward. That’s what I’m working on now anyway… staying focused on what I know are my unique abilities… contributing the things that I know are important to the world, even if how those things will generate revenue isn’t immediately apparent.

  • Greg Jessiman

    What a great and timely article, and I’m so happy to say that my boss fully embraces this.

    It’s about building the best possible foundation, by understanding our true strengths and motivations, as our own perceptions of these are often wrong. You start by asking better questions. Tony Robbins also said that “The quality of your life is directly related your ability to ask better questions”. What can I be the best at, what’s my passion, what REALLY motivates me? Knowing the answer to these questions makes it easier to build synergies within teams, so that the winning combination creates something sustainable.

    Getting there is not easy, and involves delving into uncertainty. The task is iterative and for some can be a very emotional journey. It’s frustrating, feels deconstructive but ultimately leads to enlightenment.

    The key is in the ‘Will I’ embrace this choice? Either you will and become fully engaged in the process, or you don’t and have to find another job, where you will likely still be frustrated because you don’t know yourself well enough to fully engage.

    I can appreciate what your saying Christoph, and understand the challenge. Can you imagine having been in the workplace for 30 years, only to have someone challenge your way of working? For the mature employee, trying to change so fundamentally overnight will initially seem incredibly deconstructive. Multiply this disruption by the number of employees you have over the age of 35 and you could potentially tear a company apart, if done wrongly, it’s an iterative process which takes a long time.

    Extrinsic motivators are all around us, most managers are still practicing industrial age management techniques, schools are churning out millions of students every year who have been schooled in compliance, and parent’s often strong arms their kids into educations which they believe will be more lucrative, so ultimately change starts at home and there is no time like the present.

    Change is tough, and always will be which is why it takes so long. Sites like the99percent help speed up the process by continually providing amazing articles, tips and videos which can help persuade even the most stubborn to re-think their strategies. We need to share this great source of information with as many people as we can, and we will get there a lot sooner.

  • DOngFow

    Wow, I never thought about it that way before. Makes sense though!

  • Anaik Weid

    I still don´t see how, as a leader, estimulate intrinsic motivation. Sometimes I get surprised that a member of my team will fail at their job and then simply don´t mind. I feel if they´re not literally dreaming about work during a crisis, it´s not good enough. For that, I believe that caring about doing as good as a job as it gets, is the key.

  • karlnoelle

    Great article! It’s almost scary how much I can relate to this. The same could also go for exercise—if you are a “will I” exercise person, chances are that you’ll probably enjoy it more.

  • 99U

    Christoph, For the purposes of this piece I didn’t linger on the money question for too long. But according to Pink, it’s not completely irrelevant. It is important, as he says, to pay people enough to take money off the table. To make sure people want to work for you, and that they’re not thinking about money. But once that’s done, once you pay people enough, extrinsic motivators aren’t supposed to be very effective.

    If you look at the Jonah Lehrer article I link to, there’s also some interesting research in there about the power of “unexpected” rewards. That is, things like bonuses can be really effective if they come as a surprise, rather than a given. As you suggest, though, it seems like most creatives are more interested in meaningful achievement and the big picture. – Jocelyn

  • Chris Steurer

    This is a really great article, lots of good info packed in here. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who doesn’t necessarily care about the financial gains (to a point, I have to eat!) when working on a design project.

  • 99U

    I think a big part of really engaging team members is giving them ownership of the projects they care about, so that they’re fully empowered to take control, make progress, and create something they’re proud of. Sometimes if the ownership isn’t there – or we try to micro-manage too much – that makes people disengage and stop caring. -Jocelyn

  • 99U

    Taking these ideas about motivation IS especially hard for the self-employed. I’ve been there, and I couldn’t agree more. We must be even more disciplined in certain ways than if we worked as part of a team. This is one strategy I like for self-employed folks. Maybe it will help:… -Jocelyn

  • Ginak

    It’s true. It’s like when you were in school. If it was a class on a topic that interested you- you probably did quite well. You probably couldn’t wait to get there each day, sat at the front of the class, soaking up everything you could and you were as engaged as you possible could be. The same is true for your job. If you love the environment and culture of where you work- and what you do, then you are far more likely to excel at it.

  • Gary

    Applying the science of happiness to employee motivation as well as consumer marketing has been a hot topic for the past year or so. Tony Hsieh of Zappos published a book this year which was inspired by a really solid independent piece of work call “The Happiness Hypothesis” by Jonathan Haidt. Hsieh realized that hiring only people whose personal values were directly aligned with Zappos’ core values (and reinforcing those values all the time) created an environment in which people felt they could (a) grow, (b) control their destiny, (c) share their values and personality, and (d) achieve a higher purpose than making money. These turn out to be four key ingredients we need in our lives to experience long-term happiness. Hence the magic that is Zappos’ corporate culture (and which justified the price paid by Amazon). Somewhat similar to the formula described in “Drive”…. The question now is, what will entrepreneurs, boards and executives do with these constructs over the next few years? I hope for a movement to build corporate cultures around these concepts. It would make for a much happier, and probably more productive, society.

  • Jeremy Hutchings

    Did someone just watch


  • Kelly Eidson

    I think there’s something to be said about bonuses and monetary rewards as a measurement of progress. Bonus money is tangible evidence – you can point to it and say “I achieved x percentage of the available bonus” based on your performance and feel pretty secure in knowing you improved. I’ll bet in a lot of the organizations where bonus incentives are used, there’s a link between the pleasure in receiving reward and the satisfaction of knowing you made progress.

    At the end of the day, everyone feels good knowing that they’ve accomplished something with the energy they invested. It feels good knowing that putting in the time got them closer to their goal than they were the day before.

    In my experience, people always feel the worst about themselves and their employment situation not when they’ve been given negative feedback, but when they don’t know where they stand. That’s why regular feedback is important – it’s an indicator of progress (or lack thereof).

  • L. Marie Joseph

    Intrinsic motivators is the key. However, a bonus will not hurt 🙂

  • Slizoili

    Seeing I’ve made a difference for others motivates me; and getting a simple thank you!

  • Kitzy7

    Hi Claire,

    Interestingly Flamingo just finished a Big Breakfast piece on work, the blurring lines of home and work life and key motivators / drivers.

    Here is a link to the video output from this piece: http://www.flamingo-internatio

    There is some great stuff on shifts in the work place including a movement towards more traditionally ‘female’ factors such as communication, coaching etc

    Let me know what you think.


  • Kitzy7

    Interestingly Flamingo just finished a Big Breakfast piece on work, the blurring lines of home and work life and key motivators / drivers.

    Here is a link to the video output from this piece: http://www.flamingo-internatio

  • Traveling bags

    Nice review ! I like your article and i will definitely look again……………………………………

  • dog itchy skin

    simple answer is that most people care

  • interior design decoration

    I was motivated to do great work when I think of having a career advancement. Somehow, I also feel motivated to work if I remember that I need to pay something with the salary that I am trying to earn. Thanks for sharing the types of motivation.

  • Ryan Hanley

    I love to create… Then I love to take that creation and try to create something bigger… something more meaningful… more expansive… Creation is amazing.  I love it.

    And the only thing that hold wait to my own creations is discovering the the inspirational creation of others…


  • Patsy Tondobala

    This is what Management and HRD should know

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    Several operators have true fixed-wire SMS services. These are based on extensions to the ETSI GSMSMS standards and allow fixed-fixed, fixed-mobile and mobile-fixed messaging. 

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