hbrHarvard professor Teresa Amabile, whose transformative work I describe in Drive, has a fascinating piece in the (newly revamped) Harvard Business Review, which is just hitting newsstands.

Amabile tracked the day-to-day activities and motivations of several hundred workers over a few years and found that their greatest motivation isn’t external incentives, but something different: Making progress (or what Drive calls “mastery” — the urge to get better and better at something that matters.)

Read the whole article, which is part of HBR’s “10 Breakthrough Ideas for 2010.” But here are some key quotes:

  • “A close analysis of nearly 12,000 diary entries, together with the writers’ daily ratings of their motivation and emotions, shows that making progress in one’s work — even incremental progress — is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any other workday event.” (Note: This the idea behind the “Keep Asking the Small Question” exercise on page 155 of Drive.)
  • “The key to motivation . . . doesn’t depend on elaborate incentive systems. In fact, the people in our study rarely mentioned incentives in their diaries.”
  • “On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs, or when they receive support that helps them overcome obstacles, their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak.”
  • “As for recognition, the diaries revealed that it does indeed motivate workers and lift their moods. So managers should celebrate progress, even the incremental sort. But there will be nothing to recognize if people aren’t genuinely moving forward, and as a practical matter, recognition can’t happen every day.” (Note: Exactly. Drive spends a lot of time talking about “Now that” rewards and why they’re far less dangerous than contingent incentives. Also, recognition is a form of feedback, which is essential to achieving mastery.)

12 Responses to “Harvard Business Review on what really motivates workers”

  1. EC Nagle says:

    I think your insights into what truly motivates workers (as you delineate in your impressive TED lecture) are absolutely correct. But I worry about the effect of your discoveries here because I think that workers might get paid less as a result.

    Most of us know that when employers take away free coffee, workers become livid–and perhaps rightly so. Similarly, when “extra” printers are eliminated from offices, people get very upset. Freedom to be self-determining, on the other hand, DOES seem to mean the world to employees. But when a worker is already underpaid, will an employer use possible workplace freedoms as an excuse for poor pay?

    How can the intangible (and very important) perks co-exist with the issue of salary? Do the two necessarily need to be mutually exclusive?

    Can you make a case for that? I think it’s really important.

    My two cents.

  2. RalfLippold says:

    ….. worrying about the workers in a company probably very well opens up what I would call:

    The Entrepreneurial Call

    We are all workers, if not for some boss, then for us, our family, our community or our tribe.

    @Daniel, thanks a lot for sharing your insight in written form which makes the spreading around much easier than a presentation or speech.

    Have you thought about setting up a special Twitter account for your new book? In order to engage further with interested people and putting new stories into the web of experience?

    Please let us know (http://twitter.com/LockSchuppen) we are happy to support any action in this direction.

    Best regards and a Happy New Year to all of you


  3. Elad Sherf says:

    Hey EC Nagle.
    I don’t know what Dan’s answer will be, but here is my thoughts about your question.
    They are not mutually exclusive.
    I think one of the mistakes that happened with Dan’s amazing TED talk is that people took it to mean – Money or pay is always bad. I don’t think that is not true and I don’ think that is what he meant to say.
    We need to understand that there is a difference between the two although there are certain overlaps. Compensation which usually comes in the form of salary, attracts people and creates the benchmark by allowing people to earn a living. And on the other hand we have employee engagement, productivity and creativity, which come out of recognition, rewards and everyday motivation, which does not necessarily come from money or monetary incentives.
    I think that by combining the two, we can create personalized packages that can attract the best talent and treat them honorably. Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose should not come instead of a respectable salary. They need to amplify and reinforce it.
    Check out more of what I have to say about this here: http://tinyurl.com/yf6oczo

  4. EC Nagle says:


    I see the same mistaken impression being the result of the TED talk.

    I think that Dan’s case for money not being the prime motivating factor is important and timely (especially in light of all the grossly overpaid people out there who got massive bonuses for basically making other people poor; I infer that Dan is showing how money is being wasted on these types of workers).

    Still, I am worried about the industries that already lag far behind in terms of compensation such as: education and the arts (as well as other creative fields,especially ones traditionally seen as “glamorous,” which is part of the reason they pay poorly already).

    Can you tell I’ve always worked in glamourous, artistic fields (and now in education)?

    If, as Dan argues in A WHOLE NEW MIND, these creative fields are just as important and should be pursued as wholeheartedly as the pursuit of money-making has been by an entire generation’s worth of MBAs, then when will employers recognize this?

    As an indepdent-school teacher, I sometimes think I’d be reasonably happy to have someone tell me what to do if I made twice as much money. So, in my case, I don’t think the freedom is worth the huge cut in salary. Yes, it’s nice, but freedom doesn’t pay the bills.


  5. Alberto says:

    EC Naggle said “I worry about the effect of your discoveries here because I think that workers might get paid less as a result”. I would say I`m not that worry about it, if in response i get freedom to work in what I want, when I want, where I want,…

  6. tom wilson says:

    What is it that commands a large salary? What unique value is being generated or provided? An NFL quarterback winning the Super Bowl, an MLB 300 hitter leading his team to a World Series, an uncapped teacher whose students are a grade and a half above their grade level or a salesman producing 200% of goal are all examples of short supply but great demand. When I graduated from college my dad told me not to worry about pay and vacation time because those things come through your ability to produce. All of this is incredibly subjective and defined by who we see in the mirror everyday. I remember the following quote “a good big man will beat a goos small man every time if good means the same thing” and can’t help but echo Alberto.

  7. Elad Sherf says:

    Hey Ec Nagle,
    I totally get your point. However, let’s try and differentiate between the two. Your first comment suggested that in a given job with a given pay, employers will use other means but money to motivate employees, thus paying less for the same service. That is a valid argument (although one I do not agree with). In your second comment, you talk about the different pay for different professions, which is an entirely different point (even though I recognize that if what you are afraid of in your first point happens to these underpaid jobs, then relatively, it more significant).
    I wish I had better answers for point number two. I especially think that the way our education systems are built (mine back in Israel and from what I can read , The U.S. one) is just wrong and that creates the low pay as education is not correctly valued. This is an issue I have been personally grappling with as someone who is considering going into the field of education.
    I have a feeling that the change can come from creating better education processes, that create more value, thus attracting better people(for all reasons, including money). This must be the most important social entrepreneurship challenge of the near future… I think one way we might go about doing that is by incorporating the principles of autonomy, mastery and purpose into the education system…
    Going back to the main point, I truly hope that our society will create better models of employment that will allow people to respectably and happy live their lives while enjoying their work and doing work that matters.
    Thanks for this discussion!

  8. Dana says:

    Interestingly, a similar question has been going around LinkedIn for the past few months – how to motivate sales people, specifically.
    Though some people mention financial incentives, most say that recognition and non-tangibles are the greatest motivator.
    With the economy the way it is, I know of several people whose employers have taken the “you’re lucky to have a job” approach vs. how do we keep our people happy, productive and efficient.
    We’re all looking at how 2010 will be different, and I hope this is an area that sees marked improvement.

  9. These results warm my heart and reinforce what I intuitively knew. People value recognition know matter how expert they are because there is always more progress to attain. Connections to new opportunities, chances to learn/grow, and incremental progress are a part of the natural order and human condition. Recognition of that makes sense.
    Thanks for this post. I will RT on Twitter for sure.
    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach

  10. Bill Williams says:

    Can’t remember where or how I first came across this piece by Teresa Amabile. Was it through Dan? In any event, I’ve saved it. The Six Myths of Creativity.


    More information on the same study.

  11. Mark Fedeli says:

    Can’t wait to read the new book. Whole New Mind was great, and your insights have proven to be very helpful for my own project on the brain and the long-term social and political implications of our new media environment.

    From my background in the tech venture startup community for the past 10 years, I can tell you that my experience really supports the HBR article. Many friends and family are talking about your book because my peers and I are moving into that leadership stage in our careers where we now have to think about the cultures we are creating.

    I want to create a culture that nurtures mastery in everything I have the opportunity to build. Thanks for giving me more ammo to that end.

    And if it is not too silly, I have weaved some of these concepts into an analysis of my favorite football team, the Washington Redskins. Reviewing last season (and the last 10, really) and then looking at the new coach brought in to build a new culture, I found your insights and my research married together well into what I called “A New Recipe for Culture Change” here: http://wp.me/p7HjL-iA.

    Best wishes for a very prosperous Drive in 2010!

  12. Brad Farris says:

    This is related to Jim Colin’s idea of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. If you make the purpose of your enterprise something really important, that aligns with the values of your team members (clients and suppliers) then the work gains meaning. You aren’t just shuffling papers, you are working for the greater good.

    The difficult task is to create meaningful measurements for team members at all levels so that they experience PROGRESS toward those goals frequently enough to have meaning.