The 3 things that keep people feeling motivated at work


Angus Greig

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

In the modern economy, motivation is a tricky thing.

A hundred years ago, when people like Frederick Taylor were pioneering the field of scientific management, motivation was pretty easy. The idea was you could switch people from an hourly rate to a piece-rate system to do a set of repetitive tasks, and it would incentivize them to do the tasks faster. It was a rudimentary idea, but in some organizations it’s still the philosophy behind how pay — especially incentive pay — is set. And there’s actually a decent amount of research that incentives like that can work to increase motivation when there is a really clear understanding of exactly what tasks must be done to earn the reward. But in a knowledge work or creative work economy, those easy-to-understand, repetitive tasks are becoming more and more rare.

Fortunately, there’s another option to increase motivation.

The research that began to uncover that option was conducted by two men: Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. Deci and Ryan pioneered what would come to be known as self-determination theory. Self-determination theory essentially argued that people are motivated when they can determine for themselves what to work on and how to work on it.

In other words, Deci and Ryan and other pioneers in this field of research asserted that incentives could actually decrease motivation — because incentives take away a sense of power to determine the work for oneself. But self-determination theory didn’t just point out why so many well-meaning incentive plans fail. It also outlined several drivers of human motivation, drivers that could be built into a job or a team culture to make work more motivating and increase motivation.

Below, I’ll outline the three main drivers of motivation according to self-determination theory — autonomy, competence, and relatedness — and I’ll provide practical ways to leverage the power of each.

People who experience autonomy at their jobs don’t feel micromanaged. Instead, they feel empowered by their managers to pursue objectives and deadlines on their terms.

1. Autonomy

The first motivational driver is autonomy. Autonomy refers to how much people feel in control of their own life and able to make their own choices. In the context of work, autonomy means people feel they have a say in what they work on and how they work on it. They don’t feel micromanaged; they feel empowered by their managers to pursue objectives and deadlines on their terms.

Creating a sense of autonomy in an individual or on a team can come in many forms. It could be by mutually assigning objectives and establishing deadlines. It could also be giving people more freedom over where they work, or incorporating the team or individuals in decision making more often.

One easy way to judge whether you are leading from a place of autonomy versus control is to pay attention to your feedback or coaching conversations with the team. Specifically, do this: Pay attention to how many times you’re giving them advice vs. asking them questions. If you’re often giving advice or telling people how to do something, you could be diminishing their sense of autonomy. But if you are asking questions designed to guide them to finding their own solutions, then you are leaving them in control.

Remind people of the progress they’ve already made — and show them you’re trying to help them make even more progress.

2. Competence

The second motivational driver is competence. Competence refers to our desires to seek control but also to experience mastery. Competence speaks to our natural human desire to be learners, to be growing and feeling like we’re making progress. It could be progress in our career, progress towards a set of objectives or working for a team or a company that is making progress. Anything that helps individuals feel they are moving toward mastery leverages competence as a motivation.

Creating a sense of competence in an individual or on a team might actually be more about what you don’t do. Much of the job of a team leader is providing feedback or constructive criticism. But constructive or negative criticism has been found in numerous studies to decrease a person’s feeling of competence, and thus reduce motivation.

So rather than just focusing on constructive feedback, make sure you’re taking the time to celebrate wins, large and small. And make sure that even when you are giving people constructive feedback, you are pairing it with a lot of positive feedback and praise as well. That way it reminds them of the progress they’ve already made — and show them you’re trying to help them make even more progress.

If you can ensure the members of your team know who exactly is being helped by their efforts, you can almost guarantee they’ll be willing to work hard to help those people.

3. Relatedness

The third and final motivational driver is relatedness. Relatedness refers to our will to connect with others, interact and care for other people. In terms of research, we’ve only just begun to grasp just how important relatedness to others truly is. But we know that humans are much more motivated to take actions when they’re seen as pro-social — that is, when they’re seen as being able to help other people.

Creating a sense of relatedness in an individual or on a team means making sure people build connections to each other. But it also means making sure people know the significance of what they’re being asked to do and how it relates to the whole team and the team’s and organization’s larger objectives. Even better, you might frame the team’s work in a way that makes it quite clear exactly who is helped by the organization’s, the team’s and even the individual’s actions.

This is not about reiterating the company’s mission statement — instead, it’s about creating a connection between the mission and the specific people who are served when that mission is accomplished. If you can ensure the members of your team know who exactly is being helped by their efforts, you can almost guarantee they’ll be willing to work hard to help those people.

Now if you’re read this far, you probably noticed what hasn’t been discussed yet. I haven’t talked about salaries or about perks like free food or a keg in the refrigerator. I didn’t talk about how many hours people are working or any of things typically discussed when employers are working to build a more engaged and motivated workplace. Yes, those things are all great. They just don’t do much for motivation — at least when compared to creating a sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness.

When people have the ability to determine how they work, the means to judge their progress and the feeling that their work helps other people, they can’t help but be motivated to get to work.

This article originally appeared on and it’s been adapted with the author’s permission.

Watch his TEDxUniversityofNevada Talk here:


David Burkus PhD is an organizational psychologist and bestselling author of five books, including Leading from Anywhere: Unlock the Power and Performance of Remote Teams.


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