Intrinsic Motivation

In his book “Drive,” Daniel Pink outlined the components autonomy, pathway to skill mastery, and purpose as necessary ingredients for cultivating intrinsic motivation within individuals. If any of these three components are imbalanced then work centers will be more reliant on extrinsic motivation, a much less effective organizational lever that includes punishments and rewards to promote desired team behaviors. 

“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” (Kohn, 1993). 

These components set the stage for teams to assess what processes they are embracing and practicing to re-enforce a working environment conducive for intrinsic motivation. The key notion is process as opposed to top-down management talking points—there is a world of a difference between telling individuals they are empowered to make decisions at their level versus establishing and supporting processes allowing members to make decisions at their level. 


Do individuals within our team or organization have the ability to make decisions at their level? What are those specific decisions and how does their chain of command respond when less optimal decisions are made—are more restrictions or requirements added or is the experience used as a learning opportunity for the member? The answers to these questions can be used to measure the level of autonomy and empowerment within a team or organization. Providing individuals the opportunity and coaching to make decisions is an important step towards their learned hopefulness. “Learned hopefulness suggests that empowering experiences—ones that provide opportunities to learn skills and develop a sense of control—can help individuals limit the debilitating effects of problems in living” (Zimmerman, 1990). Moreover, drawing the line in the sand outlining what decisions are appropriate for what level can be challenging—what is appropriate for one work center may not be for another. For a comprehensive guide, please reference the following two graphic titled the Wedge (Wong, 2018).

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Typical Ranks for Squadron-Level Roles:

  • Individual: Airmen, Airman First Class, and Senior Airmen
  • Work Teams: Staff Sergeant, Technical Sergeant, 2nd Lieutenant, and 1st Lieutenant 
  • Management: Master Sergeant, Captain, and above
  • Note: The guidelines above can be used to help outline what should be delegated and what shouldn’t. For example, Master Sergeants generally shouldn’t have an active role in shaping their team’s technical processes, but they would be involved in building team objectives. Many teams are disempowered because members at the Work Teams and Management levels are too hands-on or preoccupied on the tiers below their own.

Pathway to Skill Mastery

Every task or requirement levied upon a team or work center should be accompanied by a pre-planned or ad hoc pathway towards acquiring the skills necessary for task accomplishment. Otherwise, the work center will be at risk of paralysis and or overly unproductive friction—both opponents to cultivating intrinsic motivation. Conversely, there is something to be said regarding individuals with the skills to navigate through ambiguous environments or projects without explicit training on the specific domain. However, the ability to navigate through ambiguity is a function of logical thinking and reasoning skills paired with organizational empowerment and should not be used as an excuse to assign tasks without the appropriate training. Ultimately, it is the role of managers and leaders to assist teams when barriers to skill mastery are identified. “The way we’re going to be a better company is by working on yourself, and helping others work on themselves” (Kegan, R. & Laskow-Lahey, L. 2016).

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“Average companies give their people something to work on. In contrast, the most innovative organizations give their people something to work toward” (Sinek, 2009). Individuals need to know why what they are doing matters and how it will make them better human beings. Solely focusing on how the work supports big Air Force’s goals can alienate individuals whom that message doesn’t resonate with. Almost every book on leadership and culture echoes a common message either directly or indirectly, ‘get to know your people and show them you authentically care about their well-being and development as human beings.’ 

When organizational and team decisions are made, not every Airmen can personally be consulted for their expertise and opinions; therefore, one of the essential roles of managers at all levels within the organization is to take the time to explain why the decisions were made. Ideally, these forums should take place well before any decisions are finalized or changes are implemented giving the opportunity for team members to provide feedback. Ultimately, every manager and leader is responsible for proactively providing the why behind organizational decisions and changes to their team members–if the reason for a decision or change is unknown then route the question up the chain of command. 

15-Minute Exercise for Organizations & Teams

Background: During our “Airmen Roles in Unit Culture” workshops, participants start off with an icebreaker where they are asked to write down one negative cultural attribute present within their work center in three words or less onto a post-it note. Next, participants are asked to place their post-it note onto one of two placemats; one for negative attributes deliberately introduced into the work center and the other for non-deliberate negative attributes. For example, many teams struggle with communication; however, in most cases the Flight Chief and Flight Commander certainly don’t wake up one day and decide that they are deliberately going to degrade the team’s ability to communicate. Typical icebreakers result in a ten-to-one ratio with most negative cultural attributes categorized as ‘not deliberate.’ Fortunately, there is an exercise to help expose these non-deliberate blindspots pertaining to a team’s autonomy, pathway to skill mastery, and purpose.

Exercise: using a large whiteboard or clear wallspace, take three post-it notes, the first labeled “Autonomy,” the second “Skill Mastery,” and the third “Purpose,” and place them evenly spaced across the top column of the whiteboard or wallspace. Then, with a group of members from the team, each with a stack of blank post-it notes, ask the members to write down as many team processes that they can think of per category existing within the team (one process per post-it note). For example, “members choosing their own lunch break” could be a process listed under the autonomy category and “unit instructor program” could be an example for “skill mastery. Next, repeat the same process except using different colored post-it notes and instructing members to write down existing processes that detract from each category (one process per post-it note). For instance, “ineffective training program” would go under the “skill mastery” category. Once complete, the team will have mapped out how effective or ineffective their team is from a deliberate programmatic perspective at promoting an environment conducive for cultivating intrinsic motivation. 

Example: On a team whose leadership routinely articulated their desire for Airmen to take the initiative and be empowered, the Culture Mapping results highlighted feelings of disempowerment shared across the team. After running the quick exercise above, the disempowerment root-cause became clear. Under the ‘autonomy’ category, only one post-it note denoting a positive process was present with the words ‘ability to choose lunch-time’ written, yet another half-dozen post-it notes were accumulated denoting processes detracting from individual autonomy. Telling individuals they are empowered must be supported through deliberate action and processes. Unfortunately, blindspots like this are not uncommon within the Air Force; fortunately, they can be exposed using this quick and simple exercise.


  • Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, Houghton Mifflin Company
  • Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Riverhead Books
  • Sinek, S. (2009). Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Penguin Group