Are You the Master of Your Own Destiny?

Creating True Autonomy

We are most intensely motivated when we’re challenged to complete a self-assigned task that meets our personal needs. When we seek internal satisfaction, we give our best efforts, sustaining attention until resolution– no matter what.

How do we create enough autonomy at work to choose tasks that provide internal satisfaction? Granted, we don’t have 100% control over our assignments, but we do have some freedom over where we place our energies and how we spend our time.

In manufacturing jobs, products need to be produced, packaged, sold and shipped. Divisions of labor and task assignments are clearly delineated and flow charts diagram processes. In these jobs, there may be little freedom.

In knowledge-based and service industries, however, we have choices and can make decisions about how and where we spend our time and efforts.

Too many choices can lead to inertia and procrastination. Knowing what motivates us, and from where we derive our internal satisfaction, helps focus our attention and time on what matters most.

Having more autonomy over our work sounds great, but it also presents new challenges. How can we identify our internal drives? What brings us the most satisfaction? How can we select tasks and work projects that ignite our passions and internal drives within the scope of our jobs?

The Third Drive

A now-famous experiment with monkeys reveals how motivations are linked to internal satisfaction. In 1949, psychologist Harry Harlow placed puzzles in monkeys’ cages and was surprised to find that the primates successfully solved them.

Harlow saw no logical reason for them to do so. Their survival didn’t depend on it, and they didn’t receive any rewards or avoid any punishments. Apparently, the monkeys solved the puzzles simply because they had the requisite desire.

As to their motivation, Harlow offered a novel theory: “The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.” The monkeys succeeded because solving puzzles offered gratification. They enjoyed the task, which was its own reward.

Further experiments found that offering external rewards to solve these puzzles didn’t improve performance. In fact, rewards disrupted task completion.

This led Harlow to identify a third drive in human motivation:

  1. Our first behavioral drive is survival. We drink, eat and copulate to ensure our species’ longevity.
  2. Our second drive involves seeking rewards and avoiding punishment.
  3. The third drive is intrinsic: to achieve internal satisfaction.

Harlow’s theory was met with disdain from the behavioral scientists who dominated motivational theory at the time. It took almost two decades for scientists to recognize the value of intrinsic drives.

The third drive is even more important as our society moves from a manufacturing-based economy to one of knowledge and services.

Carrots and sticks continue to provide effective incentive and motivation for routine and repetitive work tasks. But for jobs that require complex creativity, intrinsic motivation works best.

3 Keys to Intrinsic Rewards

There are three critical conditions for an intrinsic motivational environment, according to Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Riverhead Books, 2009).

  1. Autonomy: Give people autonomy over what they’re doing and how they do it, including choosing their time, tasks, team and techniques.
  2. Mastery: Give them an opportunity to master their work and make progress through deliberate practice.
  3. Purpose: Make sure people have a sense of purpose in their work–preferably toward something higher and beyond their job, salary and company.

Autonomy may seem daunting in terms of practical implementation. Some companies, however, have already forged new and innovative work environments that are generating huge results–most notably, Best Buy’s ROWE (“results-oriented work environment”) program. With ROWE, employees have no schedules and are measured only by what they accomplish.

Google is famous for its “20-percent time” program, which allows engineers to spend 20 percent of their time on projects that interest them. Google Mail is one example of a successful project that came from the program.

The Australian tech company Atlassian implemented a similar program, with engineers given a full day each quarter to work on any software problem they choose — a ritual the company calls “FedEx” days. (Completed projects are delivered overnight.)

Creating Flow

People are most productive and satisfied when their work puts them in a state of “flow” — commonly recognized as being “in the zone.” In the flow state, one experiences a greater sense of focus and satisfaction.

What we know about flow is based on the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes it as the moment in which “a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

You can create opportunities for flow experiences by seeking autonomy, arranging time to practice mastery and finding a sense of purpose. Regardless of your job title, description or requirements, there are ways to engage in autonomy, mastery and purpose.

The main elements for flow experiences include:

  1. Clear goals every step of the way
  2. Immediate feedback on actions
  3. A balance between challenges and skills
  4. A merging of action and awareness, with focused concentration on tasks
  5. Elimination of distraction
  6. No fear of failure
  7. No self-consciousness or over concern with ego
  8. Activity that becomes inherently enjoyable

Look for challenges that stretch your capacity, without overwhelming you. You may be able to influence your work assignments more than you think. Smart managers know the benefits of having people who work in states of flow.

Managers are looking for ways to create optimal work conditions that bring benefits to both the company and the people who work there. Perhaps it’s time for you to look at ways to design your work to match your internal drives.

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