It appears that the performance of the task provides its own intrinsic reward…this drive…may be as basic as the others….
—Daniel Pink 
Principle #8 – Unlock the Intrinsic Motivation of Knowledge Workers
Lean-Agile leaders have acknowledged a game-changing truth: attempting to ‘manage’ knowledge workers with traditional task management is counterproductive. Management visionary Peter Drucker was one of the first to point this out: “That [knowledge workers] know more about their job than anybody else in the organization is part of the definition of knowledge workers” . In technology specifically, leaders cannot have the detailed domain knowledge needed to effectively oversee knowledge workers’ tasks, which are highly specialized and complex. Instead, they should foster an empowering and supportive work environment, encouraging knowledge workers to develop innovative and creative solutions. This article offers recommendations for unlocking the intrinsic motivation of the people who build the world’s most important systems.
The Problem with Traditional Incentives
The conventional motivation model—rewarding a desired behavior and punishing an unfavorable one—has been a dominant feature of management discipline since the early 20th century. This can be considered an “extrinsic” incentive approach, where the reward or penalty comes from an outward or external source. This type of incentive was designed for well-defined tasks and where there is a clear, linear sequence of steps to secure the result (for example, assembling a vehicle transmission). For these tasks, extrinsic motivation served its purpose.
Today, however, an increasing portion of the technology workforce faces a much more complex effort—solving problems that have no single, obvious pathway to the result. These tasks—which might be best described as “heuristic”—solving novel problems that require creative thinking, exploration, and experimentation to reach the goal. Most of the work performed by knowledge workers is this type of work, which calls for a different kind of motivation to succeed—intrinsic motivation.
What is Intrinsic Motivation?
Intrinsic motivation is the drive to perform an activity without any obvious external rewards. Knowledge workers pursue the task because it’s enjoyable and interesting, not because of an outside incentive or pressure. The motivation to do the work is in completing the task itself.
The term “intrinsic motivation’ was coined by researchers who discovered that humans (and other mammals) would persist at tasks without an external reward. Further, it has been demonstrated that introducing an extrinsic reward to heuristic tasks ultimately degrades performance . While this insight may contradict traditional management thinking, it is fundamental to understanding knowledge workers’ motivation to find joy and satisfaction in their work.
Fostering Intrinsic Motivation with Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose
Research demonstrates that enabling intrinsic motivation requires an environment where knowledge workers can exercise autonomy, pursue mastery, and identify with a strong purpose (Figure 1) .
These three components are critical ‘psychological nutrients’ that—when present—can create powerful momentum for individual growth and engagement. But motivation suffers when one of these fundamental needs is not present or is compromised. The primary task of a leader is to create an environment that nourishes this need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. The following sections detail what leaders can do to foster this environment.
Autonomy is the ability of a person to make their own choices; to be self-directed. This is a source of deep satisfaction and engagement for knowledge workers. It’s important to note, however, that “autonomy,” is not the same as “autonomous.” Many teams and roles can productively exercise local autonomy but cannot operate independently of the company vision and strategy or other teams’ efforts. Indeed, creating a complex, technology-enabled solution requires that people work together toward a shared goal. But within those guardrails, everyone can benefit from the right degree of autonomy.
Lean-Agile leaders enable autonomy through both words and actions:
- Lead with objectives, not tasks – Autonomy is best enabled with minimum constraints. A good formula for nurturing autonomy is to explain the ‘why,’ get people involved in defining the ‘what,’ and delegate the ‘how.’
- Decentralize decision-making – The ability to make decisions within their domain of concern is a crucial enabler of autonomy. SAFe Principle #9 -Decentralize Decision-Making provides essential guidance for granting knowledge workers sufficient control to achieve their goals.
- Allocate time for self-directed, exploratory work – If all the work must follow rigidly defined goals, the organization misses opportunities for improvement, as those are often only visible to those doing the work. One example of a self-directed, exploratory effort is a hackathon, a practice of allocating a window of time at regular intervals where the team can define their immediate objectives and accomplish them. As Tom Kelley, the General Manager of IDEO, puts it, “The ultimate freedom for creative groups is the freedom to experiment with new ideas.”
- Organize around value – It’s hard to achieve autonomy and deliver value in a fragmented organization that has excessive dependencies between teams and functions. Unnecessary handoffs, escalations, and delays are a common source of frustration. Creating more cohesive, value stream-aligned groups of knowledge workers (see SAFe Principle #10 – Organize around value) makes it easier to set high-level goals and grant the autonomy needed to achieve them.
Autonomy requires synergy between leaders and knowledge workers. Leaders need to create the right environment, but knowledge workers also have a responsibility to take the initiative by pursuing learning opportunities, leveraging the expertise of others, and regularly communicating and aligning with the leaders.
Pink  describes mastery as the desire to continually improve at something that matters. Pink argues that humans love to “get better at stuff” – they enjoy the satisfaction from personal achievement and progress. It’s a profoundly fulfilling drive that facilitates growth and improvement and is closely associated with curiosity, interest, and fun. For a knowledge worker, the pursuit of mastery is endless as they discover new depths and intricacies associated with each new task and challenge.
Cultivating mastery is a significant responsibility for leaders, and, as with autonomy, they do so with both words and actions:
- Engage in challenging activities; foster learning from errors – The development of mastery results from engaging in challenging activities. The learnings and setbacks are essential to the progression of mastery. Rather than viewing errors as failures, they should be seen as opportunities for learning. When errors are followed by feedback, learning is accelerated. In the psychology of learning, this constantly moving frontier is known as the “zone of proximal development.” This is where new ideas are more easily absorbed because a foundation of related knowledge is already in place.
- Leverage unexpected rewards – If rewards can be predicted, an energetic response to the reward disappears with time. However, intrinsic motivation increases if the reward is not readily anticipated .
- Built-in Quality – Built-in Quality practices shift learning left, allowing faster learning from mistakes and, thus, faster advances in expertise. Even basic Agile quality practices like collective ownership, pair work, and T-skills cultivate collaborative mastery.
- Optimize time ‘in the zone’ – The innate drive for mastery is interwoven with being ‘in the zone.’ The zone is a state of mind, also known as ‘psychological flow,’ characterized by a high level of focus. In the zone, the worker is fully absorbed by the task, its goal, and the underlying challenge (see more on optimizing time in the zone in the Team Flow article).
- Special assignments – Knowledge workers can leverage their expertise and skills and gain a sense of accomplishment by embracing challenging tasks outside their regular duties. These tasks can be used to develop new skills or refine existing ones.
- Providing learning opportunities – Continuous learning is the currency of knowledge worker growth and personal satisfaction. This can include mentoring, being mentored, attending industry events and seminars, and cross-training. Additionally, knowledge workers are encouraged to pursue more structured educational opportunities, such as taking advanced classes or obtaining relevant technical certifications.
Creating an environment that encourages undertaking challenging activities and also provides psychological safety for mastery is essential. It makes people feel comfortable taking risks and exploring new ideas while feeling safe to fail, within guardrails, of course. Such an environment fosters a growth mindset, where individuals believe passion, hard work, and dedication can develop their abilities. Additionally, a supportive and collaborative culture encourages knowledge workers to enhance their skills and expertise while inspiring and empowering one another. Effective mentorship programs and other peer-led initiatives can play a role in cultivating a culture of mastery in an organization.
Purpose underlines the ‘why’ behind the work and motivates the need to make an impact. It is the third powerful driving force for intrinsic motivation. A strong sense of purpose is becoming especially relevant as new generations enter the workforce and consistently search for meaning in their jobs .
Leaders can help amplify the sense of purpose in the workplace in various ways:
- Connect with the customer – One productive way to enhance a sense of purpose is to deepen a knowledge worker’s understanding of the customer’s needs that they serve. This can be facilitated by involving teams in the process of Design Thinking and by fostering customer empathy (see Customer Centricity). In addition, integrating knowledge workers directly into the customer feedback loop further advances their understanding and commitment.
- Provide mission and vision – Connecting strategic intent to execution is enabled by sharing the mission and vision with teams. Teams and individuals that don’t understand the strategy of their enterprise—and their role in it—feel blindsided and uninvolved. Indeed, this disconnect is a commonly observed demotivator within the enterprise.
- Bridge work to outcomes – The ultimate purpose of knowledge work is not to produce more solution features and capabilities but to enable favorable customer and business outcomes. Connecting workers with these outcomes provide significant validation and meaning for the work.
- Leverage synergistic goal-setting – Planning and committing together help stakeholders clarify the mission. And when teams create their own objectives for the mission, they are likely to dedicate themselves more thoroughly to it. This synergistic goal-setting facilitates the emergence of a shared purpose.
- Recognize the team as a unit – A productive organization builds upon the cooperation and collaboration of many knowledge workers working together toward a shared goal. To achieve that, it’s crucial to foster team-based intrinsic motivation rather than focusing solely on what motivates individual employees. This is particularly relevant in larger groups building a complex solution, where effective teamwork is essential for success.
Creating a sense of purpose is a crucial leadership task that can inspire intrinsic motivation and improve outcomes. When individuals clearly understand their purpose and how it aligns with the organization’s goals, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work. This sense of purpose can also foster a sense of meaning and fulfillment, which can lead to increased productivity and overall satisfaction.
Autonomy, mastery, and purpose help unlock the intrinsic motivation essential to a knowledge worker’s well-being, the health of the organization, and the people they serve with new and innovative systems. But these factors do not stand alone, and enterprises must also provide extrinsic motivation through salary, benefits, and other factors. This is a critical and necessary part of supporting the development and management of our human capital. Perhaps to a fault, this has been the primary—or in some cases—the sole focus of organizations as they attempt to navigate the complex relationship between enterprise and worker.
Understanding the Role of Compensation
Establishing an effective compensation model for knowledge workers requires understanding how monetary rewards affect motivation, performance, and job satisfaction. Used effectively, financial compensation can lead to higher performance and satisfaction; used incorrectly, it can disincentivize, lower motivation, and negatively impact overall outcomes.
Daniel Pink, Peter Drucker, and others have pointed out a fundamental paradox of compensation as a motivational factor for knowledge workers [1, 2]. If you don’t pay people enough, they won’t be motivated. If people feel they are paid too little or unfairly, they will be preoccupied with obtaining the pay they consider reasonable and necessary. But when their fundamental financial stability needs have been met, they can focus entirely on the task, not the money.
Beyond this stage, however, additional monetary incentives can have a positive or negative effect, depending on the approach. Here are some general tips to help leaders stay on the positive side of the ‘employee motivation balance sheet’:
- Collective purpose over individual targets – Connecting monetary incentives, such as stock options, to larger, long-term business results can foster a feeling of belonging to a larger team and a sense of ownership for knowledge workers. In contrast, basing compensation on individually-oriented metrics can decrease motivation, causing workers to focus on hitting those targets rather than finding innovative solutions.
- Appreciation and recognition over ‘if-then’ incentives – If a financial incentive follows a predictable ‘if-then’ pattern, its effectiveness as a motivator decreases quickly. This is because we respond more strongly to unexpected events.  And as mentioned earlier, these incentives can cause people to focus on earning the reward instead of doing their best work. Therefore, incentives such as bonuses to show appreciation are more effective after the job is completed instead of setting them as a goal beforehand.
- Collaboration over internal competition – Many traditional methods of allocating monetary incentives (management by objective, forced stack ranking, etc.) encourage employees to compete with one another rather than cooperate toward shared goals. Employees who need to compete for better compensation are not motivated to achieve the organization’s goals but to outperform their peers. In today’s world, where complex tasks require cooperative effort, any incentive system that discourages this collaboration should be eliminated.
- Continuous feedback over annual performance reviews – More organizations are learning that the yearly performance review process is counterproductive, especially when coupled with compensation decisions. Rather than a single annual review, continuous feedback is a more beneficial approach to performance reviews. This promotes more productive professional growth and helps leaders quickly identify and address a knowledge worker’s impediments. Alignment and trust grow along with it. Moreover, when a raise is given, it’s based on an adequate understanding of the employee’s progress and contributions.
Note that everything discussed here applies to creating the right reward system for knowledge workers—people tasked with generating new, creative ways to handle the complex challenges associated with modern solution development. In contrast, a different reward system may be more suitable for other roles within the business. For instance, rewards based on individual targets and quotas could benefit sales professionals.
Other Extrinsic Incentives
Extrinsic incentives are not necessarily all monetary. Non-monetary incentives are an important way to motivate and reward employees. These incentives can come in the form of promotions, learning opportunities, or other forms of tangible and intangible rewards. They provide an important addition to monetary compensation and can be a solid supporting structure to intrinsic motivation. They reinforce commitment and lead to long-term employee and organizational success if applied correctly.
The following tips can help leaders facilitate the personal growth and engagement of their knowledge workers:
- Opportunities for career advancement – Opportunities for career advancement are crucial for knowledge workers as they seek to grow and develop in their chosen field. This is critical to growing and retaining a healthy workforce and requires an organization to provide clear career paths and growth opportunities.
- Public Recognition – Public recognition can increase knowledge workers’ sense of accomplishment and motivate others to strive for similar recognition. The respect of peers this engenders is a significant source of pride and personal satisfaction. Recognition can be done in various ways, including specific awards, public praise, informal comments, and other forms of appreciation.
- Decentralized Decision-Making – Allowing knowledge workers to participate in decision-making is a powerful incentive. This may involve delegating specific initiatives or allowing them to provide input on significant technical and organizational decisions. Involving employees in decision-making can create a sense of ownership and commitment to the organization. This is such an important consideration that is the entire topic of Principle #9 – Decentralize decision-making.
- Positive feedback from customers or clients – Customer feedback boosts people’s morale and motivates them to continue delivering quality work. Organizations can use their established feedback mechanisms or augment them with new ones, including surveys, reviews, on-site Gemba, or testimonials to enable this.
- Opportunities to attend industry conferences or events – The professional growth of a knowledge worker is tightly connected with staying current with new technological advancements. Conferences, webinars, and boot camps are examples of events that help knowledge workers stay informed and support their continuous learning journey.
- Access to limited organizational resources – Access to cutting-edge technology or equipment, various critical infrastructure assets, or even subject matter experts’ time enhances knowledge worker learning, growth, and engagement. This can lead to increased productivity, creativity, and innovation.
A culture of direct and constructive feedback facilitates the implementation of effective non-monetary extrinsic incentives such as those above. Feedback should be encouraged in all directions, creating a culture of mutual obligation between leaders and employees.
When applied correctly, non-monetary incentives can be powerful motivators. They allow organizations to increase productivity and efficiency while giving employees a sense of accomplishment, pride, and ownership.
Regardless of their position within an organization, all leaders must understand the factors that impact employee motivation. As Figure 2 illustrates, it is critical to discern which factors enhance and unlock intrinsic motivation and which factors detract from it.
These factors are illustrated by the leader’s decisions, words, actions, and the organization’s policies, established rules, and procedures. A mindful approach to leadership is essential in cultivating a dynamic and innovative workforce that brings their intrinsic motivation to work every day.
Learn More Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books, 2011.  Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker. Harper-Collins, 2001.  Di Domenico SI, Ryan RM. The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2017, March 24.  Hays, M. J., Kornell, N., & Bjork, R. A. When and Why a Failed Test Potentiates the Effectiveness of Subsequent Study. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 2012, May 14.  Schultz W. Dopamine reward prediction error coding. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2016, March 18.  Adam Zimman et al. Measuring Leadership: The Impact of Informal Leaders in a Modern DevOps Organization. The DevOps Enterprise Journal. IT Revolution. Fall 2022
Last Update: 27 April 2023