Understanding motivation

Do you ever struggle with motivating others? Do you wonder why some people you work with are very motivated, whereas others seem less so? What motivates different people can be puzzling, but as Daniel Pink’s book Drive outlines there’s a lot of research available that can make it more of a science than an art. In fact, according to Pink there are 3 simple components to movitation: purpose, mastery and autonomy.

I’ll sumarise Pink’s argument below – and if you want more than these headlines then by all means get a copy of his highly readable book or watch this great, short and animated RSA video of him talking about the themes. In his book Pink outlines a great range of tools and examples about how to put these ideas into practice – but I’m going to focus in this post on coaching tools and why I think coaching is brilliant for building motivation.

Pink argues that we have tended to think about motivation in terms of carrots (incentives or rewards) and sticks (consequences or threats). He suggests that research shows that for some basic tasks incentives do encourage people and lead to better results – for example, on a production line people work faster if they get a reward. However, research shows that for more complex tasks requiring creative thinking incentives play no positive role, and in fact they can often have a negative impact. That might sound surprising to some, especially given the private sector’s use of bonuses to reward performance. But I think many of us working in the cultural sector or mission-led organisations already know that our colleagues are not usually motivated primarily by money. Money, Pink explains, mainly matters when people feel under-valued, or are low-paid.

Instead, Pink makes the case that what improves motivation, and ultimately performance, is feeling what you are doing is important (purpose), knowing that you are doing your job well (mastery) and having the ability to do your job in a way that suits you (autonomy).

Pink’s book is full of references to convincing research and case studies – but frankly I didn’t take a lot of convincing as these three factors really resonated with me in terms of what I have seen work in practice and what I know motivates me.

For example, a few years ago I did an evaluation project for a group of museums. Like many freelance jobs I agreed a fixed rate up front, premised on completing the project within a fixed number of days. Also, like many freelance jobs, the brief was a bit vague and once I started the project and scoped it out in greater detail it was clear that it’d probably require twice a much time to do it well as I had envisaged. As a freelancer, in these circumstances you are faced with a choice of:

  1. Doing the best job you can within the original budget (ie not the best job you’d perhaps like to do).
  2. Asking for additional resources (usually not possible).
  3. Doing a really good job, and putting in a lot more time than you’re actually paid to do (which means losing income and/or working all hours days and night).

On this occasion I took Option C and did probably three times as much work as I’d been paid to do, without complaint. The reason I gladly did this was threefold:

  • I felt a real connection with the aims of the project and felt like the evaluation report would be useful and well-used by the client. They were keen to improve what they did and wanted to know how to do it. Therefore I had a strong sense of purpose.
  • The client was very ‘hands off’. They let me get on with it and change the approach we’d originally agreed when I suggested that there was a better way to do it. In other words, they allowed me a high degree of autonomy.
  • Finally, I felt like I was doing a really good job. I took a few risks and tried new ways of working, I applied some new ways of doing things which turned out really well. In other words, I was able to do a very good job – in Pink’s terms that was ‘mastery’, although of course I’m too modest to say that myself!

With all three key factors in place, I felt I was really motoring and the client got a great deal – a piece of work that was high quality and beyond the scope of their original brief, but still within their budget. I could offer many other examples where getting those three key ingredients right has made work a joy for me, and a few where when just one is missing when it’s felt like pushing water uphill!

So, what practical lessons can we take from Pink if we want to motivate others? The simple answer is we need to make sure all three of these factors are in place, and try and increase any we can. In my experience coaching approaches can be very helpful in developing all three factors.

Let’s look at each of the factor in turn:


Goal-setting is a key part of coaching. Enabling people to identify goals that excite and stretch themselves is key to raising motivation (as other research on goals such as Edwin Locke’s work on Goal Theory suggests). Ensuring goals are specific and measurable means we can see when we’ve achieved them, allowing a sense of accomplishment that in turn fuels our motivation. It’s that wonderful feeling of being able to cross a task completed off the list.

For the coaching manager wanting to help motivate her team, that means ensuring each individual has clear, specific goals and that these goals have been set together so that the team member ‘owns’ their goals. It helps create a sense of purpose when these goals clearly link to the team’s wider goals so everyone can see how their work is contributing to the bigger picture. Even if your job is answering enquiries, if the team’s goal is supporting people with financial problems, you can feel a sense of purpose when you see how answering the phones promptly and handling enquiries effectively makes a difference to the clients you are working with. The other key tool to consider for building purpose is feedback. Letting people know what works and what the impact of their effort has been is essential in helping people feel like what they do is worthwhile.


Coaching is a great way to help people improve how well they do things, by encouraging reflection on performance and developing better awareness of what works.

How can a coaching manager encourage mastery? Encouraging employees to reflect on what went well and why, as well as what could be better next time, is important as is offering feedback on performance. Another way the coaching manager can support mastery is by ensuring their colleagues have access to any resources or support they need to do they job well; whether that’s about time, training, advice. A manager I know re-structured a team after a cut in funding, and she improved team motivation and performance in one feel swoop by reducing workload to enable all the team to have 10% of their time for reflection and professional development.


Coaching is essentially non-directive, which means the coachee has total automony in deciding what they do and how. Having established a clear goal for activity and awareness of the situation, the coach creates the space and framework for the coachee to determine how best to tackle their goal, only intervening to encourage the coachee to ensure their plans are realistic and the right approach for them.

The coaching manager is unlikely to be able to offer total autonomy in the workplace, but enabling as much flexibility as possible in terms of how work is approached, organized and delivered will ensure maximum motivation. Simply by shifting to asking a colleague be responsible for achieving something, rather than describing what you want in terms of tasks to be done can have a dramatic effect. Would you rather be asked to ‘take responsibility for the event logistics and ensure the speakers have everything they need’ or be given a long list of specific tasks to do? Telling someone exactly how to do it is more likely to annoy them than get the best from them (and it takes a lot longer for the manager too). Research shows that employees value highly their freedom to determine what hours they work, with most employees choosing a job with flexi-time (flexible starting and finishing times) which pays up to 10% lower than a job with fixed-hours.

So, according to Pink, there are three strategies if we want to increase motivation: clarifying or increasing our sense of purpose; creating the conditions for doing the job to the best of our abilities and having the freedom to work in a way that suits our style or preferences. Coaching skills and approaches are ideal for all three of these factors and therefore offer those in leadership and management roles an unparalleled toolkit for motivating others, as well as for ensuring their work is aligned with organizational goals and of the highest possible quality.

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