Does Your Workplace Foster Intrinsic Motivation

two man hiking on snow mountain

Does Your Workplace Foster Intrinsic Motivation?

Published August 2022 by John Jenkins

But I told them they were empowered

The organization’s Culture Map Report was in with a major finding–a significant portion of members across several teams felt disempowered. While it was clear to leadership before the report that the teams did not believe in their mission’s purpose, the feelings of disempowerment caught them off guard. On many occasions, the leadership would tell their teams that the Airmen were empowered to make decisions, that they had their backs, and that it was their job to support them as long as their decisions were not illegal, immoral, or unethical. So why did the Culture Map Report say otherwise?

What the literature says

Daniel Pink, in his book “Drive,” David Marquet in his book “Turn the Ship Around,” and many other authors have written about the science behind fostering intrinsic motivation within the workplace. Project Nomad defines the top three workplace attributes driving intrinsic motivation as organizational empowerment, competency, and clarity. The challenge leaders have is not only to understand these three attributes but to find ways to reinforce them within their work centers through deliberate action to avoid them becoming empty buzzwords.

Managers do not motivate employees by giving them higher wages, more benefits, or new status symbols. Rather, employees are motivated by their own inherent need to succeed at a challenging task. The manager’s job, then, is not to motivate people to get them to achieve; instead, the manager should provide opportunities for people to achieve so they will become motivated.

– Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

1. Empowerment

Nomad Definition: An organization’s conveyed rules to achieve desired habitude, attitudes, behaviors, ideations, tendencies, and situations, including codified, uncodified, written, unwritten, spoken, and unspoken rules.

Getting empowerment right is tough, and getting the right balance of empowerment will be different for each person. At its core, empowerment is a risk assessment. So how might leaders empower individuals as much as possible at their level so that the members can make decisions, develop their capabilities, and occasionally fail without exposing the organization and the individual to unnecessary risk?

One methodology that can help achieve balance is coaching rather than delegating. Coaching is a time-consuming process that can be difficult to scale while delegating is easy but less reliable. For instance, basketball coaches are at every practice helping the players refine their skills. While the coach may use drills to isolate the development of specific actions in low-risk environments, players are empowered to make decisions during skirmishes and the game. The company NextJump achieves similar results by allowing employees to develop their skills on internal workplace culture projects with revenue projects treated like a real-world basketball game.

Project Nomad recommends leveraging the same developmental sandbox framework utilized by NextJump for organizations getting after their post-Culture Mapping continuous process improvement projects. There is minimal operational risk associated with projects designed to improve workplace culture, such as launching anonymous 360-degree feedback systems or testing new team communication methodologies. These reduced-risk projects create a developmental environment where members can gain project management experience and other valuable experiences. Furthermore, gaining experience and completing tasks goes a long way toward increasing confidence in one’s abilities–an essential prerequisite for transitioning from a level-2 to a level-3 organizational culture.

2. Competency

Nomad Definition: Competency is an organization’s abilities, efforts, and effectiveness in training, educating, developing, and certifying its members to achieve its purpose.

The world is rapidly evolving, Moore’s Law has continued to hold, and training and development programs that don’t keep up lose their value by the day. Gone are the days when a quality training program or course can be built and yield high levels of value for years without consistent or deliberate upkeep. To keep up with the rapidly evolving environment, leaders must rethink how they train and develop their workforce.

One-on-one coaching and just-in-time training are outstanding developmental frameworks that are very effective at keeping up with fast-paced environments. The goal is to take individuals just far enough outside their comfort zone and allow them to immediately apply what they’ve learned with the proper safety mechanisms in place. The act of growth is crucial; however, if the gap between the member’s current abilities and the abilities needed to achieve is too broad, it can be demoralizing.

Most leaders do not have the time or capacity to coach every employee one-on-one. For this reason, organizations need the ability to grow coaches internally. Moreover, organizations with dominant level-2 cultures, categorized as “toxic apathy,” need one-on-one coaching so much that it’s vital to their survival–not mandatory fun or town halls.

3. Clarity

Nomad Definition: The foundational need for an organization to have a well-defined purpose that all its members know and understand.

Every great organization has a mission and vision statement. Dr. Zachary Wong’s book “The Eight Essential People Skills for Project Management” outlines organizational clarity as the primary role of senior leaders. This role goes beyond simply making a cool slogan that gets forgotten after a couple of months–it’s all about aligning the team’s collective behaviors, values, and beliefs through the deliberate application of language used and processes employed by leadership. Mission statements explain what the organization does, vision statements point towards where the team aspires to be, and value statements are the glue that holds the members together.

It’s easy to say that mission, vision, and values statements are not for you–if you’re not prepared to reinforce them, then it’s better not to use them. However, it’s the job of senior leaders to ensure that their members know why their work matters. Maintaining a consistent message that can be echoed across the organization at every level is near impossible if nothing is written down and everyone plays the telephone.

The Wedge by Dr. Zachary Wong

Measuring intrinsically motivating processes

Unlike good intentions, processes are far more efficient at consistently getting after the desired effect. Moreover, well throughout processes can be measured for effectiveness and improved upon. Conversely, leaders who try to ‘make up for lack of deliberate strategies geared towards managing workplace empowerment, competency, and clarity increase their blind-spot susceptibility allowing for negative attributes to fester.

During Project Nomad’s “Airmen Roles in Unit Culture” workshop, participants are asked to write down one negative workplace culture attribute in a previous work center. Then, the participants are asked if leaders deliberately introduced the negative attribute. For example, Security Forces Airmen have to work weekends and holidays to keep the base safe; therefore, the negative attribute of working weekends and holidays was deliberately introduced. Conversely, most leaders wouldn’t deliberately run a team that lacks accountability. Below is a typical ratio of responses from a real-world workshop. What negative attributes would your team highlight, and would they be considered deliberate or not?

To help the leadership understand why their teams were feeling disempowered, the Intrinsic Motivation Canvas was used. This exercise works by asking participants to write down as many positive or value-adding processes and policies within their work center to reinforce empowerment, competency, and clarity as they can think of. The process is then repeated for all harmful or devaluing procedures and policies, or lack thereof, that detract from the member’s empowerment, competency, and clarity. The final result is a visual break-out of what is adding and detracting from the attributes required to foster intrinsic workplace motivation.

Download the canvas from our website:

Putting it all together

After completing the Intrinsic Motivation Canvas, the team members only had one positive sticky note for the empowerment category that read “get to choose a lunch-break time,” with about a dozen sticky notes denoting detracting processes and policies. While it’s common for leaders to say that they empower their employees, itemizing tangible actions can be an effective method for exposing blind spots. Ultimately, not every employee will become an intrinsically motivated superstar, but shaping the workplace environment using processes and policies that reinforce empowerment, competency, and clarity is how leaders can put action behind their words and drive deliberate development.

John M. Jenkins
John M. Jenkins

Co-Founder, Project Nomad

Project Nomad

We are a group of volunteer Airmen and Guardians who provide organizational culture coaching at no cost to Air and Space Force organizations regardless of size or duty location.

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  • Coyle, D. (2018). The culture code: The secrets of highly successful groups
  • Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes, Mariner Books
  • Marquet, L. D. (2015). Turn the ship around! Portfolio Penguin
  • Wong, Z. (2018). The Eight Essential People Skills for Project Management, Berrett-Koehler Publications

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