What Actually Motivates Us as Leaders?

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How do leaders get and stay motivated?

Have you ever asked yourself:

  • How can I stay motivated?
  • Why do I lose motivation?
  • How do I motivate my team? 

If the answer is yes, you’ve already taken the first step in finding the secret to staying motivated—and ultimately, motivating others. 

The next step is understanding the true nature of what truly motivates us, and what we can do as leaders to sustainably and meaningfully motivate others.

And we promise — while there may be some jargon involved, and we’ll certainly point you toward some helpful resources where you can dive even deeper into this topic, the concept itself is quite simple to apply to your leadership pursuits.

First, let’s discuss: what is the ultimate motivator for success?

Motivation, defined as the energizing of behavior in pursuit of a goal, is a fundamental element in success, goals, and outcomes.

In an effort to discover the motivator that drives a person towards a successful outcome, Daniel Pink —  author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and guest of the Scale!…With Predictable Success podcast, proposes a new motivational theory with the concept of using internal drivers for motivation rather than the traditional and prevalent model of reward and punishment. 

Pink suggests that the key to motivation doesn’t depend on financial or elaborate incentive systems, rather, enabling people to become intrinsically motivated in areas such as purpose and mission. And he states:

“there is a mismatch between what science knows and business does” 

regarding human motivation and success.

Next, let’s dive into the two types of motivation.

Successful leaders create results and solutions. But in order to achieve those substantial outcomes, and ultimately set bigger and better goals, they must understand the range of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors that affect a team’s overall success: including their own.  

Motivation comes from two places that seem to contradict each other: 

  • Extrinsic Motivation

  • Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation, or “Type X” behavior, means that a person’s behavior is motivated by an external factor that focuses on motivating people through reward and punishment.  

This behavior model is driven by external forces such as money, praise, and the simple idea of “If you do this, then you get that.” According to Pink, these rewards are useful primarily just for simple short-term or simple (not complex) tasks. 

This structure is commonly used in business operating systems today, however, the satisfaction of performing well can often get lost in one’s drive for personal recognition and promotion, resulting in more harm than good. If-then rewards diminish creativity and long-term success.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation means that the behavior of the person is motivated by internal drivers for motivation. Pink calls this behavior “Type I.” Intrinsic means “internal” or personal needs, which take focus on fulfillment and what we want to actually do versus what we have to do.

Intrinsic motivation is the internal force of wanting to do things because they matter. 

So, truth or fiction? –> Money can’t buy performance.

Understanding internal gratification and joy in the workplace leads to greater fulfillment, deeper engagement, and higher performance which drives increased productivity, greater innovation, and more inclusive cultures — which, as they say, money can’t buy. 

Using financial incentives as the primary example of organizational integrity, Pink suggests that you should pay enough “to take the issue of money off the table” as employees who perceived they were already adequately paid, become much more motivated by intrinsic elements which created a more productive workplace. 


Additionally, a self-determination study conducted by psychologist Edward Deci demonstrates how incentivizing students with money to solve puzzles actually made them less interested in working on them after being paid. In contrast, another group of their peers who hadn’t been offered money worked on the puzzles for a longer duration and even displayed more interest…thus, uncovering a significant difference between extrinsic motivation and intrinsic (internal) motivation.

Building an Intrinsically Motivated Team

There are many theories about what motivates leaders. So, keeping Pink’s motivational theory, Deci’s study, and the Predictable Success idealogy in mind, successful leadership can be scaled by adequately supporting employees in the following three areas:

  • Autonomy – “the right or condition of self-government”

  • Mastery – “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular activity”

  • Purpose – “the reason for which something is done”

By providing autonomy, mastery, and purpose, we trigger intrinsic motivation factors that drive success.

What is Autonomy?

Daniel Pink’s definition of autonomy is the human desire to direct or lead our own lives. Effectively assigning autonomy to individuals in the workplace provides them with trust and encouragement to take ownership of their own work and skill development. 

Instead of complying with what employees are expected to do, giving them autonomy ensures that they are more involved in what they do, and even how they do it. This sense of freedom allows for more ideas, solutions, and growth, and pulls us to things that matter

Mastery explained.

The next intrinsic element of motivation is the urge to get better and be better. Progress and the desire to improve contributes to our inner drive personally and professionally. With consistent improvement, we tend to lessen the possibilities of failure, or feeling depleted or stagnant. When we aren’t improving, interest falls and many tend to give up more quickly. 

Pink suggests that management should evaluate what employees must do and what they can do. When given a must-do task that is outside of their skill set or deemed too complex, comfort zones are in jeopardy and may result in a lack of confidence or drive.  If the task is too easy, employees will become bored and complacent. The key, according to Pink, is for management to assign tasks for the individual’s capacity and skills (not too hard nor too easy, but “just right”), but also to provide the space, tools, and support to influence improvement and growth These tasks encourage focus and flow which aid to the development of mastery in business.

Using purpose as power.

Joining a cause that is “bigger” than yourself drives the deepest motivation possible which is why empowering your team to find purpose in the work they do is so powerful. As a key concept in Predicatable Success, purpose is what drives us to lead, be successful, strive for positive impact, and is what ultimately gets us out of bed each day. 

Finding something meaningful or worthwhile that is larger than ourselves, provides limitless opportunities to solve complex problems, create new ideas, structure innovations,  and achieve impossible challenges.

12 Tips for Leading a Motivated Team

While we often struggle with how to stay motivated ourselves, the following tips can be used personally or professionally by utilizing Pink’s framework of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

  1. Create an environment where you (and others!) would want to do incredible work, be creative, and excel. 

  2. Practice mindfulness as it strengthens the power of motivation through mental clarity and increasing expectations of success.

  3. Encourage team members to pick their teams for selected projects. 

  4. Relinquish managerial control over various aspects of their time and tasks such as deciding what project to work on or when to do it.

  5. Be an advocate for more opportunities in the workplace for growth and self-development. 

  6. When in management, provide your employees with the opportunity to learn a new skill of their choice to contribute that contributes to the organization. 

  7. Give ample opportunities to be heard and pitch ideas. 

  8. Occasionally, let your team set their own goals.

  9. Offer a flexible working environment.

  10. Take the initiative to combat in-office factors and potential pitfalls such as poor working relationships that can dampen the workplace.

  11.  Help employees connect to something larger than themselves to drive purpose, joy, and impact.

  12.  Be bold in sharing the organizational mission and goals with your team and express gratitude for how their work and role align with them. 

Are you ready to unlock your team’s full potential by discovering internal factors for success? What is your biggest takeaway from this post?

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