Skip to content

The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Picture by topshampattiIf you work in an Agile environment or better yet, if you manage people who have embraced the Agile principles, you have certainly bought into the concept of self-organized teams. The underlying assumptions are that:

  • People are more motivated when they are self-organized;
  • People take their own commitments more seriously than the commitments made by others on their behalf;
  • Teams and individuals are more productive when they are not interrupted;
  • Teams improve when they can settle their own issues;
  • Changes in the composition of the team affect the productivity of the team members;
  • Face-to-face communication is the most productive way to share information.

Needless to say, management hasn’t changed much in a hundred years with its need to control and its chief tools remain extrinsic motivators.

Taylor believed that work consisted mainly of simple, not particularly interesting tasks and that the only way to get people to work on them was to incentivize them properly and monitor them carefully. Later on, Maslow developed the field of humanistic psychology in the 1960s (which questioned the idea that human behavior was purely ratlike seeking positive stimuli and avoiding negative stimuli) and McGregor challenged the assumption that humans are fundamentally inert (in the absence of external rewards and punishments, we wouldn’t do much).

In his most recent book (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Usaudiobook format), Daniel Pink presents many factoids taken from scientific researches to demonstrate how people can (and can’t) be motivated. Although the author brings a scientific perspective to people motivation, the book is easy to read in addition to being entertaining.

Scientists then knew that two main drivers powered behavior. The first was the biological drive (comes from within) and the second comes from without – the rewards and punishments the environment delivered for behaving in certain ways […] The third drive – performance of a task provides intrinsic reward. The joy of the task is its own reward.

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

In his book, Pink states that human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another.


The opposite of autonomy is control. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.

Pink’s book provides valuable scientific explanations to the concept of self-organised teams. He presents the ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment) concept and the Self Determination Theory (SDT) to demonstrate the relationship between autonomy and well-being. He goes further to associate autonomy with higher productivity, less burnout, and greater level of psychological well-being. More closely related to software development, the author presents the level of authority given to employees at software giant Atlassian where people decide: what they do, when they do it, how they do it, and whom they do it with.


The desire for intellectual challenge (the urge to master something new and engaging) was the best predictor of productivity.

Daniel Pink explains that people are motivated by self-development and learning of new skills or developing existing abilities. The actual challenge of mastering a discipline is often a better motivator than money can be (assuming a minimal level of income). Similar to children who easily get motivated with playing – which is a way for them to learn and master a skill – managers can leverage that ability to motivate individuals.

As such, human beings are said to have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges to extend and exercise their capacities to explore and learn – which are in themselves powerful motivators.


The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive – our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose.

The author points out that many psychologists and economists have found that the correlation between money and hapiness is weak – that is past a certain level, a larger pile of cash doesn’t bring people a higher level of satisfaction. As such, contrary to traditional motivational techniques, money does not increase happiness and performance – some research have actually demonstrated the opposite effect! It is possible to keep people highly motivated without constantly leveraging money as a motivator.

Human motivation seemed to operate by laws that run counter to what most scientists and citizens believe. When money is used as an external reward for some activity, the subjects lose intrinsic interest for that activity. Rewards can deliver a short term boost but the effect wears off and worse can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.

In direct contravention to the core of tenets of motivation 2.0, an incentive designed to clarify thinking and sharpen creativity ends up clouding thinking and dulling creativity. Why? Rewards, by their very nature narrow our focus. That’s helpful when there’s a clear path to a solution. They help us stare ahead and race faster but “if then” motivators are terrible for challenges. The rewards narrowed people’s focus and blinkered the wide view that might have allowed them to see new uses for old objects.

Carrots and Sticks – The Seven Deadly Flaws

  1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation
  2. The can diminish performance
  3. The can crush creativity
  4. They can crowd out good behavior
  5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior
  6. The can become addictive
  7. The can foster short-term thinking.

The relation to software development

Algorithmic tasks are tasks in which an individual follows a set of established instructions down in a single pathway to one conclusion. That is, there’s an algorithm for solving it.

A heuristic task is the opposite precisely because no algorithm exists for it, individuals have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution. Software development is a heuristic task.

During the twentieth century, most work was algorithmic but as McKinsey & Co. estimated that in the United States, only 30 percent of job growth now comes from algorithmic work, while 70 percent comes from heuristic work.

Researchers have found that external rewards and punishments – both carrots and sticks – can work nicely for algorithmic tasks but they can be devastating for heuristic ones.


If you need scientific explanation and useful examples to explain to people around you why a self-organized (autonomous) team with team members who are striving to develop their skills in an attempt to reach a common purpose is possibly the most impactful motivator, you may want to read this book.


  1. Rick #

    I’m a software developer and for as long as I can remember my best work happens from 10pm – 2am.

    The only problem with working like that is that going to bed at 2a and getting up at 6am is brutal.

    Not to mention that I need to sit my butt in a chair just because someone needs to see me there has always been off kilter in my world.

    I’m a typical night owl and work better at night so my bosses have always had a great person who can muddle through the day getting things done and then kick more butt at night but would I rather just get my work done when I want and do it with more efficiency? You bet!

    June 7, 2010

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us | Analytical-Mind --
  2. 2nd Drive | State of Mind Coaching & Training
  3. TapaGeuR » ITGIF – “IT-God” It’s Friday #16
  4. Self motivation – Alessia’s story | Analytical-Mind
  5. Agile in a Command-and-Control Organization : What to do when upper management forces overtime? | Analytical-Mind
  6. Real-life laboratory for human experiments – The case of an Agile organization | Analytical-Mind
  7. The Carrot Principle – Using Recognition to Increase Team Performance | Analytical-Mind
  8. From team self-organization to enterprise self-organization | Analytical-Mind
  9. I don’t believe in self-organized teams… | Analytical Mind
  10. Les 6 principales compétences de leadershipaudacium

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: