You talk with any group of managers and invariably, the word ‘motivation’ comes up. They know – from both personal experience and now also research – that when people are motivated, they:

  • Work harder
  • Work smarter
  • Achieve more
  • Feel more connected to the organization, and so are less likely to leave

“Engagement equals discretionary effort, which equals higher business outcomes for the same amount of dollars. It is ROI at its finest—and the best possible return on investment for your human capital. And that is incredibly powerful.” Heather Whiteman, people analytics professor at the University of California, Berkeley and former head of people strategy, analytics, digital learning, and HR operations at GE Digitalone. Engagement has been linked with 17% more productivity and 21% higher profitability. 1

The importance of intrinsic motivation

Research was done at a Call Centre at the University of Michiganthat collects donations from alumni for scholarships and for research. Three groups were given three different tasks for the five minutes before they hit the phones:

  • Group 1 did whatever they wanted – they were the Control Group
  • Group 2 read letters from past Call Centre staff explaining how the Call Centre work had prepared them for their careers – where they work now and the skills they learnt by working at the Call Centre
  • Group 3 read letters from recipients of the funds collected e.g. a teacher at a community college who got a scholarship to study at the university, or a cancer researcher conducting research funded by the money collected. (Intrinsic motivation – making a difference)

Which group collected the most money? About 9 out of 10 of people guess correctly but no one guesses the size of the difference those five minutes make, and therefore the enormous significance of what is ‘top of mind’ when people work. Group 3 earned more than TWICE the number of weekly pledges (av 9 pledges versus av 23 pledges) and more than TWICE the amount of weekly donation money (av $1,288 versus av $3,130). Motivation means the motive for action – makes sense. But there is still something astounding about this effect.

Dan Pink calls Purpose the free performance-enhancing drug: both Purpose of the organization and purpose of the immediate tasks in a specific role. (In this video, Pink cross-references Wharton Management Professor Adam Grant.3)

Realize that the leader doesn’t decide Purpose. You don’t retreat as a management team and wordsmith an impressive mission statement about WHAT you do (that invariably includes the word Excellence or Leading) or a list of values about HOW people should work (that employees immediately dismiss as lip service.) No; you reveal the Purpose that is there; inherent in the daily work, but hidden behind layers of activity.

This aligns fully with our understanding of the human brain. Luiz Machado4 in The Brain of the Brain identified the midbrain as the mechanism that activates genius.  It has no language function but is activated by deep meaning – significance – and directs the cortex accordingly.  (This shows up as ‘discretionary effort’.)

This is an entirely natural, intrinsic process which is undermined by authoritarian structures, top-down approaches like MBO (Management by Objectives) and ‘holding people accountable’ which assumes extrinsic motivation equals success.

Consider what’s possible by way of results, employee wellbeing and talent retention if you get this right. If leadership is to do with people and management is to do with ‘things’, both have a role in motivation.

The leader’s role in motivation

One of the most common questions people ask is: How do I motivate people? Also common is their universal preference for intrinsic over extrinsic motivation.

It helps to know what a leader’s role in motivation is not. When asked how he motivates the New Zealand All Blacks, the coach at the time, Steve Hansen nailed it:“It is not my job to motivate the team. It is my job to create an environment where motivated athletes can perform.”5

It is not the leader’s job to motivate others. It is the leader’s job to ensure Purpose remains uppermost in collective daily thoughts and actions; to ensure that decision making and policy formation is led by Purpose. This has been proven to optimize human contribution and as humans are generally the largest single business expense, this maximises shareholder returns.

The manager’s role in motivation

Motivation management is to do with the:

  • Recruitment system: clarifying the Purpose of the organization (and the link to the role) so that only those committed to that Purpose apply
  • Selection system: Choosing those who have demonstrated the ability and willingness to make Purpose their priority
  • Work systems: co-created and agreed work processes that make it easier to do the right things right (effectiveness and efficiency), track success and adjust quickly so the purpose-led work continuously improves

While digital resources have changed how employees work, the basic design of the brain has not changed. In the digital era, the value of ‘fire in the belly’ and the ingenuity that cracks the code of a perplexing organizational problem are more important than ever. I am optimistic that AI can free humans to be more human, not less, as what is most important is enduring.

Purpose as Priority for 2024

Ask yourself these questions, then act as needed:

  1. Are people constantly mindful of why the organization exists?
  2. Do daily actions further the organization’s Purpose?
  3. Are people clear about how their daily tasks – their role – impacts the organization’s Purpose?
  4. Do meetings, work discussions and communications (daily emails, announcements, changes and policies) make it clear how Purpose is better achieved by decisions made and new technology?
  5. Are you taking full advantage of the performance-enhancers in all brains on the payroll?

Refer back the University of Michigan study: would you describe the Call Centre’s Purpose as “Collecting donations”? Or “Sponsoring education opportunities that will change the lives of students”? Or “Funding potentially life-saving research”?

Focusing on this aspect with leaders typically changes their state. They say this ignites something (which is also potentially health-transforming as it is an antidote to stress.) They admit they had unwittingly got away from the WHY of their work.

Think about (and discuss with everyone) the systems and protocols that will keep people plugged in to the impact of their daily work and why success matters. Make this a priority in 2024.


  1. “Employee Engagement Statistics You Should Know.” January 2024.
  2. “Purpose – Why We Do What We Do.” Daniel Pink. 2013.
  3. “Putting a face to a name: the art of motivating people.” Adam Grant. February 2010.
  4. Machado, Dr Luiz. The Brain of the Brain. Cidade do Cerebro
  5. Interview: All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen. 2015.


Tag/s:Education, Empathy, Employee Experience, Personal Development,