True Motivation: A marriage of meaning and money (Part II)



There’s a lot of debate on what motivates people to work: is it money, is it autonomy, purpose, mastery, or is it something else?

In Part I we explored the issue and common opposing views. In this, Part II, we’ll dive into a deeper model of motivation and use it to explain how these views are actually compatible.


How does Motivation work?


Four types of motivation in order of importance and their relationship to money

There’s a hierarchy of motivators that matter to people:

1. Basic Needs

We all have universal basic needs for which we need money – food, shelter, the basic things of life.

Without these we can’t focus on anything else: money is essential. Poverty kills.

2. Opportunities

Having opportunities is key to making something of your life. Opportunities to learn, grow, develop skills and experience.

There are many ways to get opportunities: some people get it by birth, some by luck, good timing, hard work.

Money can buy opportunity because it gives people the freedom to explore, learn and try things out and it provides connections: well connected people tend to be richer.

At the same time, money isn’t sufficient. It isn’t motivating without an opportunity to persue.

3. Autonomy, Purpose, Mastery

Money can buy opportunity because it gives people the freedom to explore, learn and try things out and it provides connections: well connected people tend to be richer.

To give people’s lives meaning they need a sense of purpose; that they can make a difference in the world.

They need the autonomy to make their own decisions and mistakes and learn from them. They need the challenge of mastering a skill and achieving goals.

Money isn’t essential but it really helps: money buys independence, money buys the freedom to define your own purpose, money buys time to master a skill or subject.

But money isn’t enough. You can be wealthy but lack purpose, wealthy but unskilled and inexperienced, wealthy but with little control over your life. All of those things are strong demotivators.

4. Luxuries

Nice things and nice experiences are enjoyable to have and many people are motivated by them. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Living the pure and simple life isn’t somehow morally superior or magically happier: if that’s what you enjoy, great, but many don’t. Money is needed to have luxuries.

What have we learned?


There’s no incompatibility between money and meaning: indeed both are needed. Everyone is right. People need money and they also need autonomy, mastery and purpose. Status is poor-man’s way to be given autonomy – there is a much better way.

Giving people more money does help but it isn’t enough on its own.

So if money is your organisation’s only reward policy, you are literally choosing the most expensive possible approach and ignoring some big motivational levers.

How can I better motivate my staff?


So what can I do about this in my workplace?

In Part III, we’ll explore how you can take advantage of this knowledge to proactively design a workplace that inherently gives people opportunities, autonomy, purpose and mastery – and all of this at low or zero cost.


Why don’t you take the time to look at your own organisation and ask yourself two questions:

a) Do we pay people enough to meet their basic needs and have some luxuries?

b) Do we have a strong structured approach to providing people opportunities, real autonomy, a sense of purpose and the chance to achieve mastery?

When you read on to Part III, make sure you do so willing to implement real changes for your teams.

Posted in Engagement, Ownership, Rewards.

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