Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose: Why Workplace Incentives Don’t Work

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are key to leading healthy, fulfilling work lives.

The research is compelling. Popular authors like Dan Pink and Dan Ariely are spreading the insights gained from the science to the general public, through viral TED talks and New York Times bestselling books.

So why aren’t business leaders getting the message?

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

There’s a great concept in George Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, known as doublethink.

Doublethink is a mechanism for the novel’s totalitarian government to control the populace. Doublethink is a kind of mental trick you play on yourself. It requires you to hold two mutually contradicting beliefs at the same time, in one concept. So the Ministry of Peace perpetuates war, the Ministry of Truth airs propaganda, and the Ministry of Plenty rations all the food and supplies.

(If this sounds uncomfortably close to many real-life political institutions, it’s because Orwell was way ahead of the curve on this score.)

Doublethink goes even further: “[I]t means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.”

Corporate culture is mired in doublethink. In particular, those executives and companies that were raised on a steady diet of traditional management orthodoxy have become blind to its inner contradictions.

Motivate people by threatening them. Foster creativity and innovation by micromanaging them. Inspire people by enforcing conformity.

Geoffrey James, writing for Inc., accurately sums up the doublethink at work in many of our organizations:

Ironically and sadly, though, many executives believe that to be effective they should 1) minimize salary costs, 2) control employee behavior, 3) encourage uniformity/predictability and 4) promulgate laughable “mission statements.”

Such executives then try to use bonuses and stock options to motivate a handful of key employees (including themselves) thereby creating the mediocrity that’s so characteristic of so many corporations, large and small.

When Yahoo and HP call in all remote workers to foster “creative collaboration” (with the implicit threat of layoffs and firings if they don’t comply), it’s doublethink at work.

When C-level executives pay themselves huge bonuses after tanking a company’s value, it’s doublethink at work.

And when organizations expect employees to be loyal while letting go dozens of their colleagues down the hall, it’s doublethink at its absolute worst.

Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

The Candle Problem

Photo Credit: timtak via Compfight cc


For an advanced, 21st century society, we still have some very barbaric ideas about work.

Take the traditional carrots-and-sticks approach to management. Do well, and you’re rewarded with a carrot. Perform poorly, and you’re beaten with a stick.

Why haven’t we progressed beyond this model of motivation?

And perhaps just as importantly, does it even work?

In Drive, author Dan Pink argues that it doesn’t. Extrinsic motivators like carrots and sticks are fine for straightforward, algorithmic tasks like factory work and data entry. But when it comes to creative, nonlinear tasks like most knowledge work today, Pink argues intrinsic motivators are where it’s at.

Here’s Pink’s TED talk on the subject of motivation, including an utterly devastating takedown of extrinsic motivators, based on psychological research conducted by Dan Ariely and the London School of Economics:


The mismatch between what science knows and what businesses do continues.

As chronicled in The Progress Principle, psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer interviewed over 600 managers on what motivates their employees. Fully 95 percent of these managers still identified salary, raises, and bonuses as important drivers of motivation for workers, despite all the evidence that intrinsic, emotional drivers are more important for performance than money.

Autonomy Mastery Purpose

So if management-imposed incentives don’t promote (or actively harm) motivation, what does work?

The Autonomy-Mastery-Purpose trio (or AMP) is Dan Pink’s answer to the question of what motivates people to work harder and perform better.

Here’s how to think about these three concepts:

  • Autonomy – The urge to control the who/what/when/where of work.
  • Mastery – The drive to get better at what we do.
  • Purpose – The sense of connecting to something bigger.

Each aspect is worth diving into, so let’s get started.


Autonomy means giving people control over how they work. That includes what they work on, when they work on it, how they perform the work, and who they perform it with.

Corporate America is lagging behind on all of these measures. But there is a sector of the economy that recognizes the power of empowered, self-organizing teams.

That sector is the software industry, and in particular, the Agile software development community.

The Agile Manifesto explicitly states that organizations should “build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done” and that “the best architectures, requirements and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”

Agile organizations trust their employees. Why? Because they’re smart, self-directed, and creative. And when you smother them with micromanagers and meetings, they become dumb, lazy, and unimaginative.

Some companies like Atlassian and 3M promote radical amounts of autonomy for their employees. Whether it’s FedEx Days at Atlassian, when employees get 24 hours to deliver a finished project unrelated to their regular jobs, or 15 Percent Time at 3M devoted for pursuing new ideas, some companies are well ahead of the curve on the autonomy score.

But like William Gibson says, the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.

Other companies like Yahoo, HP, and Best Buy have rolled back remote working and results-only work arrangements.

The question for companies that continue to ignore the reams of psychological research and trend towards increasing employee autonomy is this:

Are you prepared to lose your most talented individuals to organizations that do respect their employee’s time and intelligence?


Human beings have an innate drive to get better at things.

Whether it’s getting better at our jobs (where we’re paid) or whether it’s getting better at our hobbies and recreational activities (where we aren’t), there’s a deep-rooted impulse to strive for greater degrees of skill.

And yes, even mastery.

So what gives? Why are so many employees, as many as 69% according to one study, actively disengaged from work if mastering skills naturally leads to satisfaction?

Let’s think about the different ways the drive towards mastery can be thwarted at work:

  • Politics. Jockeying for position in the hierarchy is a feature of command-and-control organizations, preventing you from getting new and interesting projects approved.
  • Repetition. Most employers hire you to do the same thing over and over again, instead of actively investing in your development.
  • Risk aversion. The fear of failure drive many organizations, making the environment inhospitable towards experimentation and challenging yourself at work.

And that’s just three ways. Most Cover-Your-Ass organizations in Corporate America are structured to actively thwart the ambitions of their employees.

That’s not good enough in the 21st century.

Politics, repetition, and risk aversion are driving employees to self-employment, freelancing, and entrepreneurship, where they can control their own career and personal growth.


The quest to find meaning and purpose in our careers is not ending any time soon.

The advocates for work-life balance were always working from a false premise: that we want a clear, impenetrable division between our work and our lives.

The explosion of working anywhere, anytime uproots this theory. As does the explosion of freelancers, independent contractors, and entrepreneurs who use all 168 hours in a week to their advantage.

Instead, the 21st century mission is work-life integration.

Purpose plays a big role in that mission.

When work has a greater purpose, we don’t feel trapped by meaningless tasks and meetings that go nowhere.

Purpose has two major components:

  • Making a positive contribution to others and
  • Making progress every day

As you can tell by that definition, nearly everything we do as human beings can be imbued with purpose, from the obvious, like helping people in need, to the mundane, like cleaning hotel rooms for guests.

Chip Conley, founder of the hotel company Joie de Vivre, tells the inspirational story of a Vietnamese maid named Vivian:

As I spent time with Vivian, I noticed that she had sort of a joie de vivre in how she did her work, which got me curious – how could someone find joy in cleaning a toilet?! Vivian helped me understand that her calling wasn’t to become the world’s best toilet scrubber. What counts to Vivian is the emotional connection she creates with her fellow employees as well as with our guests. She gets inspiration and meaning by knowing that she’s taking care of people when they’re vulnerable and traveling on the road far away from home — as Vivian herself knows what it’s like being far away from home.

Vivian’s story is important because it underscores how much your viewpoint matters when it comes to finding the purpose in your work. Two people doing the exact same job can have wildly different satisfaction levels when it comes to meaning in their work.

The goal (and the opportunity) is to move more people into work where they feel connected to a greater purpose.

AMP & the Personal Hedgehog Concept

What about the Personal Hedgehog concept? How does the Autonomy-Mastery-Purpose trifecta fit with the three core questions at the heart of finding your hedgehog?

Quick refresher: Your Personal Hedgehog, or what the best version of you would be doing with your life, is the intersection of these three questions:

  1. What could you be the best in the world at?
  2. What are you passionate about?
  3. What drives your economic engine?

Purpose and Passion: Dan Pink’s purpose and Jim Collins’ passion requirement fit together quite nicely. Passion is sustained enthusiasm. Purpose, or feeling that your work connects with something bigger than making money, is a driver of passion.

Mastery and Becoming the Best in the World: If mastery is striving to get better, than being “the best in the world” is the ultimate fulfillment of mastery. In Seth Godin’s formulation, you can be the best in the world of a very tiny niche–so don’t let becoming the “best in the world” intimidate you.

Autonomy and Economic Engine: Autonomy and creating your economic engine go hand-in-hand. Not having to rely on handouts and paychecks is the ultimate autonomy. Creating a market of many for your work gives you the freedom to say goodbye to any single client, customer, or employer. Being at the mercy of a single employer always creates the potential for compromising your integrity, your voice, or your values. F.U. Money is the best enforcer of your autonomy.

As you can see, I believe Dan Pink’s AMP concept and Jim Collins’ Hedgehog concept are strongly resonant with one another.

And that should not come as a surprise. The lessons of business, cognitive psychology, and Agile are all pointing in the same direction:

What matters most for meaning and happiness in a career is what’s going on in your internal life, not outward status or salary.

It will take overcoming decades of entrenched managerial interests and doublethink, but I believe we are at the beginning of a revolution in how and why we work.

What will it take for you to join the agile revolution?

Top Photo Credit: David Blackwell. via Compfight cc

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