The Science of Motivation

The very first time I met printing industry entrepreneur and educator Mary Black, she gave me a piece of managerial advice I’ve never forgotten: “If you want to manage someone effectively, you must first understand what motivates them.”

A 2014 article entitled The Enormous Cost of Unhappy Employees by Inc. online revealed that as many as 87% of employees worldwide are disengaged at work. Disengaged, unmotivated employees lead to decreased productivity, lower levels of happiness, and have a direct effect on a company’s bottom line. Therefore, it’s logical to assume that if more people felt motivated at work, levels of engagement (and therefore productivity, happiness, profitability) would also increase.

So what motivates people?

Our gut instinct usually points to one answer: money. Other factors such as good benefits, a nice office space, or a short commute might prove motivating for some. On the surface, it appears that motivation is different for everyone and the key to managing someone effectively is unlocking and acting on this hidden gem of information. However, motivation research, including work done by author, Daniel Pink, suggests that we are all motivated by the same set of underlying factors. He argues that the three keys to motivation are: autonomy (allowing the freedom for self-directed behaviour), mastery (becoming increasingly better at something that matters to the individual), and purpose (providing context for how small tasks work towards achieving something larger than oneself).

In Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he explains that “carrots and sticks” (rewards and punishments) motivate people, but only in a very limited scope of work. Work that is highly repetitive, routine, and relies on following basic instructions falls into this category. Living in today’s knowledge economy means that most work requires outside-of-the-box thinking, creativity, and problem solving. In this world, carrots and sticks don’t motivate people in the same, predictable way. Now, this is not to suggest that people will work for free (although the Wikipedia model proves that this is possible); instead Pink suggests paying employees enough to take the issue of money off the table, after which point autonomy, mastery, and purpose reign supreme.


Autonomous work environments allow freedom in working towards specific goals (such as reaching a sales target or meeting a project deadline). Some companies have even gone as far as creating a ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment). In a ROWE, employees are given the freedom to work however, wherever, and whenever they want so long as the work gets done. Many companies who have gone ‘ROWE’ report that productivity has increased, stress has decreased, and loyalty for the company skyrocketed. If a ROWE seems too extreme, even giving employees 10% time (equivalent to one afternoon a week) to work on projects that most interest them outside of their normal tasks, can promote a more autonomous workplace. Google and 3M are famous for providing this “free-time” and many important innovations were developed as a direct result (Gmail and Post-it Notes, for example).


The pursuit of mastery helps satisfy our innate desire to improve our abilities. The key to mastery is first allowing for autonomy in work, which leads to critically important engagement in one’s work. Assigning “Goldilocks tasks” (tasks that are neither too easy nor too hard) with clear objectives and a way to offer quick feedback is shown to help push mastery forward. Furthermore, alleviating the frustrating mismatch between what people are assigned to do and what they can actually get done in a day is a key part of this. Frequently meeting with employees to determine whether they are overwhelmed or underwhelmed and adjusting their tasks accordingly, helps to facilitate each employee’s quest towards mastery with the support of management behind them.


The “purpose” layer of motivation provides context for autonomously working towards mastery. It helps us understand how we’re making a contribution to the world. Instead of aiming for only profit maximization, many companies are choosing to strive for purpose maximization instead (because they understand that humans are innately purpose maximizers not profit maximizers). Instead of only emphasizing how something should be done, emphasizing why time is spent on it helps to establish importance in everyday tasks. Context helps to quench our inherent thirst for meaning.

The next time your workforce needs a motivational boost, consider what you can do to capitalize on this important research before simply reaching for the company’s wallet to hand out financial incentives. It’s about time that more businesses do what research has known for decades, and produce better results for everyone involved.


Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.