The Game Changer: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

The Great Ideas Conference, sponsored last week by ASAE and the Center, was more than another conference with some interesting education sessions and good times with friends. It featured a game changer that will stay with me for a long time.

Many others have written about Dan Pink’s exciting talk about intrinsic motivation, the forces that really motivate human beings today. I had finished reading Dan’s book on the flight to the conference, so the content of his talk wasn’t a revelation. But his appearance imprinted it on my brain. It’s rocked me in a big way.

A quick recap:

At the beginning of our existence, humans were motivated by basic bodily needs: Food, sex, shelter, etc. That’s Motivation 1.0.

When basic needs were more-or-less handled in developed countries, Motivation 2.0 was designed: rewards and punishment. Most management practices are based on this 2.0 model. But social scientists have noticed something very strange. Motivation wasn’t 2.0 was working. And the more it was applied, the results were worse. What was missing?

It’s the recognition that human beings have powerful intrinsic motivations that are not addressed by the old models – intrinsic motivations that common management techniques write off. Ever see a young child play? Do they need a bonus to be engaged in what they do?

It’s Motivation 3.0, and its three building blocks are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy: The more people have control over their lives, the happier they are. Self determination is the path to engagement. Our country is built on this principle.

Mastery: We are wired to want to be better at what we do. The mastery of something is its own reward. It may be the most powerful thing driving us.

: We are happiest when we are working for something larger than ourselves.

This is a game changer of the highest order. Autonomy is deeply threatening to those who micromanage. Mastery is disorienting to those who believe people try to do the least they can get away with. The purpose motive is unfathomable to those who lock “strategic planning” in the organization’s ivory tower.

I like to think that I intuitively lean in the direction of Motivation 3.0, probably because I crave this for myself. But Dan Pink’s talk had me reflecting on the areas where I still fall short – in my own life, in my family, with the people in my department, and even with the members of our medical society who volunteer for committees.

In my career, work is least fulfilling when one of these three pieces is missing. My daughters chafe the most when autonomy is not an option (admit, parents, you do it too). At work, I can almost see them go numb when I become unnecessarily prescriptive.

The entire vocabulary of management needs reinvention under this framework. People don’t “report to me” and they don’t “work for me.” Even the word “management” has to be re-examined. Words matter, because they frame thinking and inform action.

Of course, anarchy is not the answer. There’s always work to do, and objectives to accomplish. And as Dan Pink said, you can’t get to Motivation 3.0 if the other needs aren’t addressed adequately and fairly. But he has plenty of ideas to have an engaged workforce or community, while getting the work done, within the framework of Motivation 3.0.

But this line of thinking shouldn’t stop with Dan. For those who us who have been inspired by this, we must keep the conversation alive, and put it in place where we live, work, and play.

To get started, you really should read Dan’s book, Drive. Here it is on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

UPDATE: ASAE and the Center has done something awesome. It’s offering a video of Dan’s Great Ideas talk free, both to members and non members. Enjoy!


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