Intrinsic Motivation at Work: What Really Drives Employee Engagement

Intrinsic Motivation at Work: What Really Drives Employee Engagement

by Kenneth W. Thomas

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What motivates people to do their best work in any endeavor they undertake? Management theory and practice has traditionally focused on elements that Kenneth Thomas calls 'extrinsic motivators': pay, benefits, status, bonuses, commissions, pension plans, expense budgets, and the like. While these are powerful motivators, particularly in command/control job situations where workers have little or no say in how the job is managed, by themselves they are no longer enough. In today's organizations, where managers expect workers and teams to self-manage their work, intrinsic rewards are essential. This breakthrough book provides the first comprehensive treatment of intrinsic motivation in the workplace-the psychological rewards workers get directly from the work itself-offering clear advice on how companies can harness its tremendous power to develop a more committed, self-managing workforce. Written in an engaging, accessible style and grounded in solid academic research, the book provides a diagnostic framework for addressing problems of intrinsic motivation and essential ways to build it.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609944414
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 04/13/2009
Series: 0
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 595 KB

About the Author

Kenneth W. Thomas is Professor Emeritus of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the cocreator of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, which has sold more than 6 million copies.

Read an Excerpt

Intrinsic Motivation at Work

By Kenneth W. Thomas

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 Kenneth W. Thomas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57675-592-1

Chapter One

How Work Has Changed

I find that a lot of people hold old assumptions about work that no longer apply. So this first part of the book will help you understand how dramatically work has changed, the nature of today's work, and what engagement looks like in today's organizations.

It is hard to grasp how rapidly and dramatically the worker's role has changed in this country. Consider that we even use different words to describe workers now. Few organizations still use the word subordinate to describe workers. Even the word employee has given way to associate in many Fortune 100 organizations. These word changes are a surface sign of the deeper shift in workers' jobs.

In The New American Workplace, James O'Toole and Edward Lawler provide a detailed analysis of workplace changes over the last three decades. Look at their data in figure 1. In the twenty-five years between 1977 and 2002, there were huge surges in the number of workers who reported that their work was meaningful, allowed them discretion, and made use of their abilities. In roughly the span of a single generation, then, there has been a sea change in the nature of work.

What happened?

How Work Used to Be: The Compliance Era

From the beginning of the twentieth century until the 1970s, it was reasonably accurate to think of workers' roles in terms of compliance. Sound management meant simplifying work tasks, producing thick rule books, and building tall hierarchies with close supervision to make sure that workers complied with the rules. This was command-and-control management in bureaucratic organizations. It was supported by the economics of the times: in a stable environment with heavy demand, the rules produced standardized products and services that met customer needs, and the simplified work meant lower pay and training costs for workers. Blue-ribbon companies of the time, including General Motors, General Electric, and American Telephone and Telegraph, exemplified this philosophy. And generations of managers and workers had time to get used to this reality.

The Last Three Decades

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, technology had changed the economic equation. Telecommunications created a truly global marketplace, with intense competition and the need for quicker responses. Customers demanded greater quality as well as customized products and services. Most organizations restructured to flatter, more agile designs that emphasized cross-functional teams and the free flow of information. Inside the organization, computers and automation reduced the number of low-skilled jobs and increased the need for worker judgment. Low-skilled jobs that could not be automated were often off shored to countries with lower wages. Computers provided workers access to the information that enabled decentralized decisions.

These conditions, as Warren Bennis had predicted years before, brought about the decline of bureaucracy. The tall hierarchies and close supervision prevented workers from responding quickly to customer needs. The same was true of the detailed rules. One by one, Fortune 500 organizations announced large layoffs of middle managers and first-level supervisors, and CEOs condensed rule books down to a few guiding principles.

In most organizations, then, it is no longer a question of middle managers' allowing workers more choice and participation. Many levels of middle management and supervisory positions have been eliminated, and an organization needs its workers to take on many of their roles. Workers are often in different locations from their managers, making close supervision impractical. Instead of complying with detailed rules, workers are now asked to be proactive problem solvers. They must make adjustments, coordinate with other organizational players, innovate, and initiate changes. Workers are becoming strategic partners of top management, deciding the actions needed at the grassroots level to meet their organization's goals.

It is hard to draw precise boundaries around these changes. Some industries and job types come immediately to mind—"high tech" and "knowledge workers." But the new work is not confined to particular industries and job classifications. O'Toole and Lawler found examples of the new work in virtually every industry. The main differentiator seems to be business strategy. Organizations that choose to compete primarily as low-cost providers often continue to offer low-skilled, low-paying jobs that give workers little chance to exercise choice. Still, because of global competition and technological change, these organizations are now in the minority. Fewer and fewer organizations can afford to use people only for compliance.

In most of today's organizations, then, workers are required to be a greater source of problem-solving creativity and value-added than in previous years. Keeping them motivated, using them well, and retaining them have become important to competitive advantage, or even a requirement for survival. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, put it this way: "I think any company ... has got to find a way to engage the mind of every single employee.... If you're not thinking all the time about making every person more valuable, you don't have a chance. What's the alternative? Wasted minds? Uninvolved people? A labor force that's angry or bored? That doesn't make sense."

Employee Engagement

In the last few years, organizations have adopted the phrase "employee engagement" to capture the kind of motivation required in today's workplace. It is the logical successor to earlier terms in the evolution of work. We began "enriching" workers' jobs in the 1970s. Then we "empowered" workers in the 1980s and 1990s. And now that the work is more demanding and there is looser supervision, we need to make sure that workers are psychologically "engaged" in performing that work.

Unfortunately, "employee engagement" has been used in quite different ways by different writers, often without a specific definition. A more specific and useful definition of engagement is the degree to which people actively self-manage in their work. (I'll cover this definition and the nature of self-management in more detail in chapter 3.)

The chapters in this book will give you a solid framework to help you understand and build employee engagement. Our focus will be on understanding how engagement shows up in a person's work, how you can recognize it, and how you can help to create it. The framework we use will build upon the key difference between old-school compliance jobs and most of today's jobs— the degree to which they provide intrinsic rewards.

So at this point, I'd better explain what I mean by "intrinsic rewards."

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

The downside of compliance-era work was that there was little in the work itself to keep workers motivated or satisfied. Consider the daily experience of a compliance-era job. Nearly everyone has had one—hopefully only for summer jobs or early in your career. Mine involved a white-collar job during summer breaks. There was some challenge in learning the detailed job rules at first, but that didn't take long. Then I settled into a boring routine, and much of my work behavior went on automatic pilot. If I had a question, I had to ask the supervisor. My mind wandered. I found myself watching the clock before breaks and toward the end of the day. I looked forward to anything that broke the monotony and started to invent mental games. I put unnecessary creativity into things that might give me satisfaction, like improving the quality of my printing. The only excitement involved a standing card game during the lunch break. I had to drag myself to work each morning but went because I needed the money.

When organizations wanted only compliance from workers, then, they bought it with money and other tangible benefits. In the language of motivation theory, these are extrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards don't come from the work itself; they are doled out by supervisors to ensure that work is done properly and that the rules are followed. They include compensation such as salaries, bonuses, commissions, perks, benefits, and cash awards.

Extrinsic rewards were an easy solution to motivation in the compliance era. They were possible. The tall hierarchies allowed managers to supervise workers closely so that they knew when rules were being followed and could give or withhold rewards accordingly. And the rewards were enough. Organizations only needed to buy rote behavior, not commitment and initiative. They didn't need to appeal to workers' passions or even enlist much of their intelligence. Finally, they were all management had to offer. With the simplified work and the constraining rules and procedures, few intrinsic rewards were possible.

As I mentioned, the new work requires a great deal of self-management by workers. Self-management, in turn, requires more initiative and commitment, which depend on deeper passions and satisfactions than extrinsic rewards can offer. Fortunately, the new work has the potential for much richer, intrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards come to workers directly from the work they do—satisfactions like pride of workmanship or the sense that they are really helping a customer.

I will spell out the intrinsic rewards that are possible in today's work in part 2 of this book. But to fully appreciate these intrinsic rewards, you need to understand two key aspects of the new work—purpose and self-management—for they are at the root of intrinsic motivation. We'll cover those topics in the next two chapters, beginning with purpose.

Chapter Two

The Rediscovery of Purpose

This chapter will help you understand the key role of purpose in today's work. As we'll see later, meaningful purposes are a foundation for worker engagement and self-management.

To begin, let's take a moment to consider the nature of work itself.

What Is Work, Anyway?

I invite you to take a moment to examine your own assumptions about work. Work is made up of tasks. What words or phrases come to mind when you try to define what a task is? If that is too general of a question, then pick a specific task your work team performs and think about how you would describe it to a new team member.

I've learned that there are two very different ways of answering that question. The first way reflects the traditional, activity-centered notion of work. It says that tasks are made up of activities (behaviors) that a worker needs to perform. So if you were explaining flight attendants' jobs, for example, you would mention activities such as giving safety instructions, serving meals and beverages, and distributing pillows. This is the way most of us were trained to think about workers' jobs. It is a notion of work that fit the compliance era very well, since compliance is about following behavioral directions.

The other way of answering the question involves a more purpose-centered view of work. It says that tasks are most fundamentally defined by the purposes they serve. If you were explaining flight attendants' jobs in a purpose-centered way, for example, you might say they are there to keep passengers safe, comfortable, and satisfied. Or you might mention the purposes as a way of explaining the task activities: giving safety demonstrations and enforcing FAA rules to promote safety, providing food and bedding for passenger comfort, and generally trying to keep passengers satisfied.

These purpose-centered answers reflect a fundamental insight about work tasks. Tasks are made up of more than the activities people perform. After all, those task activities only exist because someone chose them as a way of accomplishing a purpose. Tasks, then, are sets of activities directed toward a purpose. Betty Velthouse and I offered that insight in an article nineteen years ago, and I am still amazed at its importance.

Rediscovering the role of purpose in work is key to understanding the new work and the motivation of today's workers. Without a clear notion of purpose, workers cannot make intelligent choices about work activities, and they are also deprived of a sense of the meaningfulness of their work. So, if you and others in your organization are still thinking about work in an activity-centered way, you'll have some rethinking to do.

Two Important Facts About Purposes

To help you understand the role of work purposes in engagement, you should know two basic points about purposes. First, work purposes generally involve events that are external to workers' jobs. That is, most work purposes involve outcomes that occur not to the worker, but to some customers (internal or external) in the worker's environment. There are some exceptions involving secondary tasks. For example, my task of cleaning off my desk is aimed at allowing me to better accomplish my main work purposes. But those main purposes involve meeting the needs of book publishers, readers, students, and research sponsors. Environmental needs like this create jobs in the first place. Importantly, meeting those needs—and having a positive impact on one's environment—is what gives the job its significance or meaningfulness.

The second point is that achieving work purposes is not totally under a worker's control and involves inevitable uncertainties. Because they are external to workers' jobs, task purposes depend not only upon workers' activities, but on outside events as well. For example, flight attendants' purpose of keeping passengers satisfied depends on passengers' moods, flight delays, turbulence, and the behavior of other passengers. Likewise, a forest ranger's success in keeping wildlife healthy depends on factors such as naturally occurring diseases, lightning-started forest fires, and the behavior of campers and hunters. The fact of these uncertainties provides much of the challenge and suspense involved in accomplishing work purposes— and produces much of the satisfaction in their accomplishment.

How Purpose Got Removed from Work

I'm going to give you some history and background here—to explain why purpose got removed from jobs for a long time, why it has suddenly and dramatically reemerged, and how purpose-centered leadership has become critical. This material helps leaders to reexamine some half-truths that were taught in management training in the not-too-distant past. (But if you are in a hurry, just jump ahead to the section called "Not All Purposes Are Equally Engaging" toward the end of this chapter.)

If purposes are fundamental parts of tasks, how did they get separated from traditional notions of work? The answer goes back to the early twentieth century when the industrial era was blooming. It was then that so-called scientific approaches to management began to develop, largely to meet the demands of the new phenomenon of mass production. The environment of the early twentieth century was considerably more stable and predictable than today's. That is, its uncertainties were more manageable for organizations. This meant that organizations could largely coordinate their tasks using two simple devices: centralized, hierarchical control and detailed rules and procedures.

Let's start with centralized, hierarchical control. Because uncertainties were relatively manageable, managers could take on the responsibility for handling them. In effect, they walled workers off from the environment and its uncertainties. For decades, it was considered sound management to "buffer" workers from potentially disruptive environmental events and to "absorb" uncertainty on their behalf, and this language was reflected in the classic works on management. Notice how paternalistic this language sounds today. Managers essentially took over the decision making involved in handling uncertainties in order to achieve the task purpose. They became the "keepers of the purpose." Knowing about task purposes and their accomplishment became unnecessary for workers.


Excerpted from Intrinsic Motivation at Work by Kenneth W. Thomas Copyright © 2009 by Kenneth W. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part I:What Engagement Looks Like Today
A Management Tale
1. How Work Has Changed
2. The Rediscovery of Purpose
3. Self-Management in the Pursuit of Purpose

Part II: The Intrinsic Rewards that Drive Engagement
A Management Tale, continued
4. Four Intrinsic Rewards
5. How Intrinsic Rewards Work—and Their Effects
6. A Diagnostic Framework for Rewards

Part III: Managing Your Own Engagement
A Management Tale, continued
7. Tuning Into Your Own Intrinsic Rewards
8. Building Your Sense of Meaningfulness
9. Building Your Sense of Choice
10. Building Your Sense of Competence
11. Building Your Sense of Progress

Part IV:Leading for Engagement
A Management Tale, concluded
12. General Tips on Leading for Engagement
13. First Impressions and Priorities
14. Leading for Meaningfulness
15. Leading for Choice
16. Leading for Competence
17. Leading for Progress
18. Enjoying the Ride
Resource A: Two Earlier Models of Intrinsic Motivation
Resource B: Putting Money in Perspective
About the Author

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