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.

What is a coaching culture?

“I arrive at work feeling good about the day ahead, clear about what needs to be achieved and a little nervous about whether I’ll manage to make it all happen – because we’re launching a new event tonight for local press and community stakeholders. Walking through the open plan office on the way to my desk I hear the happy buzz of purposeful conversation between colleagues who are excited about tonight and getting on with preparations.

I used to dread walking into the office as a colleague was always ready to pounce and would need me to make a decision about something urgent that I’d not yet had time to think through. These days people just seem to get on with things much more, and need my input far less.

Last time we had an event like this I was worried for weeks before. Would enough people turn up? Would anything go wrong? We had frequent problems with the caterers and so I always had to clear my diary on the day on an event to check-in with front-of-house staff and be on hand to sort things out at the last minute. No-one else seemed to keep on top of things and unless I inspected things myself I couldn’t be sure the standard would be good enough. It took a lot of my time checking-up on people and making sure things were right, even when I’d given really clear instructions people still seemed not to follow them.

We also had this perennial problem with local press turning up and not being treated well. The press officer used to get really frustrated because he’d arrange press interviews and check everyone’s diaries in advance but then on the day itself the exhibition curator was always too busy installing work to spend time being interviewed. I lose track of the number of times I was pulled into arguments about whose fault it was.

Tonight’s event though was the idea of the exhibitions team. They were keen to create a specific welcome event for local press and key stakeholders and the press and marketing team have been happy to work with them. It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this; we have got a few things wrong but we’ll know how to do it even better next time. What has impressed me most is the willingness of everyone to try a new idea and make it happen – people have really given it 110% this time.

Now I trust everything is going to plan and if there’s a problem that I need to resolve I can rely on my colleagues to let me know. Most of the time if there’s a problem my colleagues sort it out amongst themselves anyway, without my help. To be honest they are closer to the action and often know better than me what’s the best way to resolve things. I can concentrate instead on the meeting I have later this morning with a potential new patron. It used to be hard to find time to get out of the office and explore new opportunities, but I am doing a lot more now I have less fire-fighting and checking-up to do. It’s beginning to result in some new funding relationships and partnerships that could have a real impact on the organisation in the longer-term.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? This is the kind of story I often hear described when I’m talking to senior staff and ask them to describe the work context they are hoping to create, or when I’m working as a organisational development consultant with cultural organisations. The picture is surprisingly consistent both in terms of the culture people want to work in, but also the culture they currently find themselves inhabiting.

Far too often I hear about workplaces where people are demotivated by overly-prescriptive and critical managers and unnecessary hierarchies. Managers and senior staff frequently feel over-whelmed by their responsibilities and unable to ‘get their heads above the water’ to engage in the more strategic, important aspects of their role. Too often they feel they are fire-fighting and being drawn into decisions that should be taken closer-to-the-ground. When compounded with the tendency of non-profits to over-stretch themselves, people begin to demand for clearer priorities (or more resources).

Instead, most people aspire to working with colleagues who are highly motivated, independent and good at what they do. Line-managers want to work with staff who can be trusted to get on with things. Most line-managers want staff to come up with ideas and solutions too. Staff want to feel trusted to make things happen without having the check-in and to be able to trial new things without fear of making a mistake.

These are all features of a ‘coaching culture’. A coaching culture is an approach based on the values of coaching and the skills that underpin it, such as highly developed communication skills. Coaching values include:

  • Delivering results – striving to improve
  • Empowering – encouraging people to take responsibility for themselves and being non-directive – respecting individuals’ autonomy and diversity.
  • Increasing awareness of your impact/ performance

So what does an organisation with a coaching culture look like in action?

An organization with a coaching culture supports individual and organizational learning. Having a clear training strategy and investing in training is important, but so is valuing internal reflection which is more about making time to review than finding money for courses. Managers use coaching approaches with their teams, encouraging people to generate ideas and solutions and to take ownership of what they do. This means staff tend to be both highly-motivated, clear about the propose of their role and where the fit into the organisation’s plans and they also feel their time and talents are being well-used. Staff surveys would be one indicator of this high level of engagement, but low staff turnover, happy staff wanting to go the extra mile are easy to spot in any organization. In a coaching culture lots of ideas are generated at every level of the organization.

An organization with a coaching culture is ambitious, and aware of the impact it achieves, what it does well and where it can improve. Being clear about goals enables staff to know when they’ve done well, which means they feel proud and motivated to do more. Conversations about what is working and could be better happen frequently and easily at all levels of the organization, including with external partners and audiences.

Sounds like a great place to work to me! And given that coaching enables organisations to deliver better results, it’s not surprising that across the commercial, public, and non-profits sectors many organisations are developing coaching cultures.