Skip to Content

EMPLOYEE MOTIVATION: The Language of Motivation in the Workplace

Everyone wants more cash, right? Well…..apparently not. Twenty-first century research on motivation, commonly called Motivation 3.0 (Daniel Pink, Drive), suggests that what employees really want is much more than cash. Today’s workforce is looking for:

1. Autonomy – the desire to direct their own lives

2. Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters

3. Purpose – the yearning to do what they do in the service of something larger than themselves


Autonomy can be defined as giving more control to employees over what they do, when they do it, with whom they do it, and how they do it. It requires a move from a task focus to results orientation, flexibility in work schedules and flow, control over who will be engaged in doing the task (the team), and encouragement to improve the task. Pink suggests that, “companies that offer autonomy, sometimes in radical doses, are outperforming their competitors.”

Mastery means that engaged employees want to become better at something that matters to them, and to their employers. The challenge lies in knowing those things that are important to employees, what drives them, and their level of skill and ability. Working together, managers and employees strive to set goals that are just right. Called the “zone” or place of optimal drive, this target is populated with “goldilocks tasks” – tasks that are not too easy or too hard, but just aspiring enough that mastery of them yields a feeling of great satisfaction with the success and achievement of the task.

Pink also points out three truths around the concept of mastery:

1. It requires the mindset where you always can improve your ability or skill at something

2. It demands effort, grit and deliberate practice

3. It is both alluring and frustrating because as number one suggests, there is always room for growth and improvement in everything

Purpose brings to light the need for all humans to commit to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. Leaders are pressed to add a “purpose motive” to the workplace by:

• Setting organizational goals that use profit to reach a purpose beyond revenue generation.

• Using “words” to inspire employees. According to Gary Hamel, “The goals of management are usually described as “efficiency,” “advantage,” “value,” “superiority,” “focus,” and “differentiation.” Important as the objectives are, they lack the power to rouse human hearts. Business leaders must find ways to infuse mundane business activities with deeper, soul-stirring ideals, such as honor, truth, love, justice and beauty.”

• Considering organizational “purpose-centered” policies that encourage employees to support, with time and money, causes that have meaning to them or tasks that make their jobs more meaningful.

Does the environment you create in your organization, department or work area inhibit or promote autonomy, mastery and purpose? Are there even subtle ways you could start to infuse these concepts into your department or work area?

Below are a few examples of how some organizations are embracing Motivation 3.0 theories and putting them to practice:

1. FedEx Days:  Employees are given 24 hours to tackle any problem they want as long as it relates to a company’s products or services.  At the end of the 24-hour period, they present their results to the rest of the company. First developed by the software company, Atlassian, they have expanded the original concept to one a half days starting after lunch on Thursday and ending at 4 p.m. on Friday when they present the results. According to Atlassian, the goals for FedEx days include:

• Foster creativity. Atlassian is good at hiring smart people and we’d be mad to keep all that brain-power locked up.
• Scratch itches. Every developer has something that bugs him/her about our products, or something they’d like to see them do.
• Spike. Often, radical ideas don’t get traction because we don’t understand how they’d work or what benefit they’d provide.
• Have fun. Institutions like FedEx make Atlassian a fun place to work.

They hold one FedEx day per quarter. Visit their FedEx page on their website for more specifics on how to run a FedEx day and their accomplishments. You can also join the Google group for FedEx organizers to get more ideas and tips.

2. ROWE (Results-only work environment): ROWE is a workplace in which employees don’t have schedules. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time or any time. They just have to get their work done. Co-created by Jodi Thompson and Cali Ressier, two former HR professionals at Best Buy, ROWE challenges the more traditional work hour schedule and provides that time autonomy encouraged in Motivation 3.0. Interestingly, Thompson and Ressier contend that ROWE teams report an average increase of 35% in productivity by eliminating waste from systems and processes, which increases employee capacity. ROWE teams also experience up to a 90% decrease in voluntary turnover rates. Read about their experiences in Work Sucks and How to Fix It.

3. Sawyer Effect:  This effect is defined by Pink as “a weird behavioral alchemy inspired by the scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in which Tom and friends whitewash Aunt Polly’s fence.” If you don’t remember the scene:


Polly definitely embraced the carrot-and-stick motivational environment, which did produce compliance on Tom’s part. However, Tom employed a different approach with much success.  In fact, Pink would say that if you are driven to become a “master” of your job and tasks, what was once work, might just end up feeling like play. For example, Zappos, noted by Fortune as the #6 best place to work in 2011, embraces fun by advocating a “quirky, happy culture of fun and a little weirdness.”

4. Twenty Percent Factor:  A workplace initiative where employees can spend 20% of their time working on any project of their choosing. At Google, they can spend 20% of their time doing whatever they want, without question. “When you’re passionate about something and it’s an idea you believe in, you’re bound to work harder on it,” Alec Proudfoot, Google employee, explained. “Just about all the good ideas here at Google have bubbled up from 20 percent time, or something like 20 percent time, where people have their own idea and run with them.” Google mail and GoogleNews are just two examples of how this concept played out at Google. Too radical? Pink suggests “20 percent time with training wheels” – which might mean starting around 5 or 10%.

Are you creating the potential for that experience in your work environment, either for yourself or for others? Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience shares this insight, “Contrary to what we usually believe…the best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times – although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”



If you liked this, you may want to read these:
Situational Leadership: The 4 D’s of Your Employees

Envy in the Workplace

ARTICLE: Motivating & Retaining Staff

Who We Are

An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

Our Twitter Feed