What motivates us? Autonomy Purpose Progress

Rainbow-colored graphic representing the emotions that vary along with a person's self-perceived skill to complete a task
Tasks with the challenge level too high can cause anxiety if one's skill level is too low.

Mastery is defined as the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Qualitative research reveals that making progress — however small — is the single most important factor in what motivates people day-to-day at work. Pursuit of mastery often leads to the experience of "flow" as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Flow is a state in which people are so focused on an activity that time seems to melt away. Drive author, Daniel Pink, argues that achieving flow requires a "Goldilocks task" that perfectly balances challenge and ability (ideally a notch or two beyond someone's current skill level).

Tasks that are too difficult may increase anxiety, which will hinder a person's intrinsic motivation. During this session, we reflected on our experiences of flow and discussed ways managers could set the stage for their staff to experience flow in the workplace.

  • Reflect: When have you experienced flow and what factors were most important to achieving it? Can you replicate these for your team? (e.g., uninterrupted time, personally interested in the subject, learning something new)
  • Know your people: Ask your staff if/when they experience flow in their jobs. Something you might think is repetitive or dry might be something they really enjoy. 
  • Assess your people: Use the flow to talk to your staff about their feelings about their work. If staff are anxious, can you help them from a state of overwhelming to a state of flow by either reducing the challenge or helping them gain needed skills? 
  • Trust your people: Allow your people to have the freedom to try new things, make mistakes, and fail (Overlap with autonomy!). 
  • Ask open-ended questions: Where do you feel your skills don't match the challenge? 
  • Support: Provide the necessary resources and support structures so that your team knows where to turn when they feel stuck. 

Ideas for stretching skills

  • Managers can ask staff if they want a special project or let them choose a project to work on.
  • Flip ownership back to the team, e.g., if an employee asks, "How do you want me to do this?" Managers can ask, "How do YOU want to do it?" and discuss.
  • Teams can revisit projects AFTER they are completed to look for what went well and what did not. Do not skip this step because mastery can be built through analysis, even when things do not go perfectly.
  • Multistep projects can easily become overwhelming. Coach your staff to stop, reflect, and recognize when they have made progress — small wins! Help them put into words results that are less obvious (e.g., "You have gained wisdom about what not to do if you are in this situation again.")

Resources to support mastery


If you have questions or ideas for additional resources in this playbook, please contact the Director of Finance and Administration