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



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 Part II we dove into a deeper model of motivation and used it to explain how these views are actually compatible.

In this, Part III we’ll cover practical strategies that use this model of motivation to improve motivation in your business.


We concluded in Part II that we need to provide people with a mix of opportunity, purpose, autonomy and mastery plus monetary reward.

If you’re not still not convinced that this is an important issue, take a look at the evidence and watch me describe some of the issues and consequences of low engagement and motivation.

If you don’t think you have a problem in your business, apply The Ambitious Manager Insight Staff Survey to find out (and not just about motivation – about a whole range of potential issues).

Ok, let’s assume now you want to make changes in your organisation. How exactly do we do that?

It’s my hope that the recommendations here will be enough to spark your own solutions for how you can improve motivation in your organisation.

Delivering Purpose

The essential ingredients for motivation

A strong and meaningful organisational and individual purpose is essential for high motivation.

When people believe that an organisation is engaged in a worthwhile purpose and can see how the work they do directly contributes to that purpose, then that’s a powerful motivator to pour their creativity and effort into work.

As I wrote in Why Vision and Mission Matter and What Makes for Good Ones, a worthwhile purpose cannot be either self-serving or purely financial and must be connected directly to delivering tangible benefits to customers. It’s about making a real difference to people’s lives.

If your organisation’s purpose doesn’t meet these and other important criteria then it will not be motivating for the vast majority of your staff. Motivating the leadership alone isn’t enough – in fact it’s the completely wrong goal – the focus should be on creating all the conditions necessary for motivation to flourish on the ground. Then from that you’ll have no shortage of highly-motivated and capable leaders emerge from within your own business.

Remember: lasting motivation isn’t something you do to people. You can’t achieve it by exhortation, fine speeches, sticks and carrots. You can only make sure that your organisation has the right environmental conditions and structures to encourage it, feed it and help it grow.

As leaders we have to act in line with our organisation’s purpose, vision and values. There’s nothing more demotivating that one rule for the leadership and another for everyone else.

So if your purpose isn’t clear then sort it out. If it isn’t motivating for everyone then change it. Set a clear vision & mission and then specific goals and strategies for everyone to follow.

Delivering Autonomy


Autonomy is all about letting people “below” you make decisions themselves.

That means you don’t get to make those decisions or veto them. It’s not autonomy if people are only allowed to make decisions that you approve of or sign-off. As we discussed in Servant Leadership you need to be explicitly out of the loop in these areas.

It’s not autonomy if people are only allowed to make decisions that you approve of or sign-off

Many times well-meaning leaders think they do this but actually don’t – everything still comes back to them for authorisation with all the delays, bureaucracy and constriction that this entails.

It might comes as a surprise to you but leadership isn’t about making decisions. As I wrote in Leaders: Stop making decisions and start leading instead the principal role of a leader is to learn the business, understand the work, and then help devise strategies that take everyone forward in the right direction.

Don’t confuse leadership with management. In a mature well-run business with a high degree of trust everyone knows what will benefit the organisation at all levels and so the vast majority of time people at all levels can exercise good judgement with autonomous decision-making.

None of this means you have to delegate all decisions or get rid of all the managers. But you do have to delegate some decisions and provide enough autonomy that people feel they have control over their own destiny. You simply can’t fake this if you want it to work.

The other key aspect of autonomy is giving people control over how they do their work.

Nothing is more dehumanising than turning a person into a mindless robot forced to follow a procedure written by someone else who doesn’t do their job and may not even properly understand what it involves. Sadly, many modern digital service initiatives do precisely this with all its concomitant waste of human potential and guarantee of low quality services.

There’s a simple rule here: the people that do the job must be in control of how the job is done. There’s a massive body of evidence now from both manufacturing and services that this is the route to excellence, efficiency and happy staff.

There’s a simple rule here: the people that do the job must be in control of how the job is done

By all means you can specify the desired outcomes and external constraints on their work but you don’t get to prescribe how they do it. You do get to hold them to account for doing it well and as a leader or manager you are held to account for supporting and enabling them to do it.

So delegate decisions and give people autonomy including how they work. Set boundaries and constraints and support them as they learn how to exercise their autonomy wisely. Work hard to build mutual trust and loosen the boundaries as they demonstrate their ability to self-manage. Aim for that elusive goal where they no longer need any input from you to excel and you trust them enough to step back.

Delivering Opportunities


There’s relatively little to add here because if you work hard to deliver a coherent meaningful purpose and high degree of autonomy then that in itself provides people with significant opportunity to grow and develop.

However, many organisations say that they give their employees every opportunity to progress and advance their skills, experience and careers. But in practice this often just means a few training courses, annual performance reviews, the odd small bonus and a slow progression of promotions.

If you truly believe in “equal opportunity” then you need to deliver two things:


Recognition of outstanding achievement regardless of age, seniority, time in the business or any other irrelevant factor

Meaningful rewards when people deliver and exceed expectations – using measures of outcomes not individual performance

So again it is very simple. When an individual or team achieve great things, reward them by giving them more autonomy and responsibility. When they fail, focus time and energy on them and support them to learn from those failures and grow.

By all means have money follow success but it is more important to give meaningful opportunities to step up further and achieve more and bigger things for the organisation. This can be contentious but it’s especially important that no-one thinks their position or job title gives them an automatic right to further opportunities.

Results are the only thing that matter (but only if they are delivered in a way that supports the long-term success of the business, its people and customers – the ends never justify any means).

If you do this, and I mean really do it (not just say you do), then you’ll build an organisation where everyone knows that advancement is tied to common outcomes for the whole organisation. That directly inhibits politics and misplaced internal competition (hint: your competitors should be external!) and builds a collaborative environment where people can achieve much more together than they could ever do on their own.

Delivering Mastery


Mastery is perhaps the simplest and best known of these four motivation factors.

Essentially this is all about having the opportunity to excel in a particular skill, domain, discipline or other facet of work. That’s supported by creating suitable roles (NB: roles, not jobs: you’re hiring people who can fill a variety and shifting mixture of roles) and supporting people to learn skills and gain experience.

A common misunderstanding is that this is all about specialism in a narrow skill. It isn’t.

Specialism matters and is important. A heart-transplant patient is truly glad that specialists exist that only perform these kinds of operations. However, you can specialise in a broad sense as well as a narrow one. And if you think about it, this is really important because a room full of narrow specialists is not a team.

A room full of people who only do one thing well will tend to structure and fragment their work around their specialism

A room full of people who only do one thing well will tend to structure and fragment their work around their specialism. They will struggle to properly understand the end-to-end service being delivered because their focus is so much on one small part. They will “speak a different language” and struggle to collaborate effectively.

People can also specialise in broad skills. These are essential to have within a team for it to function properly.

Examples of broad specialisms include:


Specialising in identifying problems

Specialising in solving problems

Specialising in bringing people together and enabling better communication and collaboration

Specialising in navigating internal politics

Specialising in the big picture

Specialising in the detail

Specialising in different parts of the creative process

e.g. sparking and nurturing ideas, turning ideas into prototypes, turning prototypes into projects, running and delivering projects, the launch process for new services, supporting people internally and externally, maintaining existing services


I could go on and on, adding important broad specialisms to this list.

It is key to realise that just because a person is good at starting something they may not be good at finishing. Some people specialise in getting things off the ground but don’t excel at seeing them through. This isn’t a weakness – it’s a strength. It is very important to identify this and to involve the right mix of people at the right times to maximise success.

It is key to realise that just because a person is good at starting something they may not be good at finishing…this isn’t a weakness – it’s a strength

To make an effective team you also need everyone to become generalising specialists. This means that as well as strength and depth in a particular skill, everyone learns a shallow but broad knowledge about everyone else’s work, sufficient to help with and execute some of their tasks – at least the simpler ones. This is sometimes called creating T-shaped, I-shaped or even E-shaped people.

This gives the team flexibility and resilience and perhaps more importantly it ensures that everyone has a good understanding of the end-to-end service delivery. That dramatically reduces arguments that arise due to the ignorance of the key role other people, other teams and other parts of the organisation play in achieving success.

Concluding Remarks


As you can see, nothing I’ve recommended above is expensive to achieve. In fact, working in the ways suggested almost always saves large amounts of money because of the bureaucracy it kills and the improved productivity. The most effective motivation mechanisms are also the cheapest, but they do mean significant and meaningful changes in how everyone works.

I hope this mini-series has been useful and wish you the best of luck making your workplace a motivating place.

Posted in Engagement, Ownership, Rewards.

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