Intrinsic Motivation

Even in this challenging and unprecedented time, Notre Dame Research is committed to investing in strategies that will move the division forward and help make it “A Great Place to Work.” Unlocking the power of intrinsic motivation is one of the keys to increasing both workplace productivity and satisfaction for employees—a win-win for everyone.

Over the past year, NDR has invited managers to learn about the concept of intrinsic motivation and its three building blocks: autonomy, mastery, and purpose, as described by career analyst Daniel H. Pink. In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink argues that the problem-solving needed in the 21st-century workplace will only be achieved by self-directed employees who have opportunities to develop their skills and contribute to something greater than themselves. While NDR has borrowed Pink’s definitions for our training, research across the fields of psychology, education, sociology, economics, and, more recently, neuroscience has uncovered many similar principles and themes.  

 Summaries and resources for managers from each session within NDR's Intrinsic Motivation series can be found below:

Fig 1 - Blue bar graph showing autonomy drives NDR managers by 41% over relationships at 21%, mastery at 17%, and purpose at 21%
Our in-session poll revealed that autonomy drives NDR managers most of all.

Session One: What motivates us?

Career advice often pushes platitudes like “follow your dreams” and “pursue your passion.” If being passionate about the subject of your work is the only way to find satisfaction through it, then many of us are out of luck.

Enter the concept of intrinsic motivation. Intrinsically motivated people have an internal drive to learn, grow, and succeed. They are happier at work and more creative. A bonus for managers is that intrinsically motivated employees are also more engaged in the workplace leading to less attrition and higher-performing teams.

"While many employers think their goal at work is to make people happy, the reality is that most of us work for a reason: we want to spend our time contributing to others and creating something bigger than ourselves (Purpose). This is the core concept behind meaningful work. When the work itself is empowering (Autonomy); when we feel we are in the right jobs; when we feel close to our team (Relationships); and when we have enough time and resources to succeed (Mastery), we can be happy." – Josh Bersin, Industry Analyst and Founder of Bersin Academy

What can managers due to increase intrinsic motivation among their staff? They can structure their workplaces to enhance their employees’ feelings of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. According to Pink’s analysis of decade’s worth of research on motivation, carrots and sticks (i.e., rewards and punishments) negatively impact workers’ productivity and satisfaction, whereas allowing employees to develop autonomy, mastery, and purpose energizes them and unlocks their internal drive.


These are the building blocks of intrinsic motivation as defined by Daniel H. Pink in Drive:

  • Autonomy – the urge to direct our own lives
  • Mastery – the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

Increasing intrinsic motivation fosters employee engagement, which means employees are more satisfied in their work, more secure in their roles and responsibilities, and feel more supported by their managers and teams. Employee engagement is essential, yet may feel harder to achieve as remote work becomes more common. Add to these building blocks, an intangible motivator well understood here at Notre Dame: Relationships. We know that the relationships that people form at work can increase morale and shape the meaning employees find in their day-to-day tasks.

The following sessions take a deep dive into the three components of intrinsic motivation and provide tips on creating the right environment to engage your employees and to encourage them to thrive. 

Resources to learn more about intrinsic motivation



Session Two: Autonomy 

The second session focused on the intrinsic motivation component of autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. The research on autonomy is clear that when we can choose what we work on, we are happier and more productive. So what is holding managers back from creating environments where employees have more control over what they do and how they do it? Our initial conversation together revealed some discomfort with the idea of autonomy: What if my employee gets out their lane? What if an employee strays too far beyond their skill set or knowledge base? What if I don’t like the outcome?

Fig 2 Autonomy Workshop
Building a marshmallow and spaghetti tower while exploring the limits of autonomy! How can managers provide an environment for success without killing creativity and innovation?

The conversation led us to this conclusion: Autonomy is not a free-for-all nor is it a one-size-fits-all concept. With appropriate “guardrails” tailored to employee experience and skill and clear direction, managers can facilitate an autonomous environment that stimulates creativity and innovation. Group discussion yielded best practices for fostering autonomy in the workplace: 

  • Delegate authority where possible
  • Trust your workers and accept that the outcome may be different from how you would do it
  • Provide safety (no punishment for honest mistakes)
  • Provide a clear purpose and goals
  • Provide transparency
  • Ensure that employees have an understanding of their roles and how their work impacts others

Resources to support autonomy

More Research:

Manager Tools:

  • Manager Self Reflection Questions – Managers can take this assessment to get a baseline understanding of how autonomy is practiced in their workplace.
  • Coaching Prompt Questions – Managers can use these questions in 1:1 conversations with their employees. You might send them ahead of time so that the employee has time to reflect before you meet.
  • Autonomy Audit for Unit – This assessment is designed to be taken by all employees anonymously in a group setting.

Session Three: Mastery 

The third session focused on the intrinsic motivation component of mastery: 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).

Square-shaped XY-graph divided into 8 triangles arranged in a rainbow around a center point
Tasks with the challenge level too high can cause anxiety if one's skill level is too low.

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 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 around their work. If staff are anxious, can you help them from a state of overwhelm 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 helping staff stretch their skills

  • Ask staff if they want a special project or let them choose a project to work on.
  • Flip ownership back to staff, e.g., if an employee asks, "How do you want me to do this?" Ask them, "How do YOU want to do it?" and discuss.
  • 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



Session Four: Purpose

The fourth session focused on the intrinsic motivation component of purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. The simplest advice to leaders comes from Daniel Pink in Drive: Spend less time “telling how” and more time “showing why.” If your employees don’t know why they do what they do, their intrinsic motivation won’t increase. In his book, Alive at Work, Dan Cable states that leaders have a direct impact on how people feel about purpose. If a leader is inauthentic, her employees will feel it and any talk of purpose backfires. Purpose has to be experienced and felt, which is why managers should be “linking pins,” connecting employees with the people who are impacted by their work.

Different- colored and sized of words in jumnble
An opening exercise revealed that while we may not agree on the exact purpose of the University, our division, or individual units, there is a lot of commonality in our understanding, including the importance of research, support, and faculty.

Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why, offers templates for crafting your unit’s purpose statement:  To________(Contribution) so that ___________________ (Impact).

Sinek cautions readers that purpose can’t be too generic. The products or services your unit offers should support your purpose or vision, not be an end in themselves. For example, most insurance companies lay claim to the same purpose: to protect people from the unpredictable. But what sets one company apart from its competitors? That difference will provide a clue as to its unique purpose. 

Ideas to infuse your unit with purpose

  • Outsource inspiration and give the microphone to your clients. If you receive great feedback about a staff member, ask the person to share that feedback directly with the staff member. 
  • Power of 1 Person: Even just a single person who can give witness to the impact of your team’s work is enough to inspire and increase your team’s intrinsic motivation and productivity. 
  • Be authentic. Know your own work purpose and coach your staff to help discover and experience their work purposes. 
  • Know your unit’s purpose and clearly articulate that purpose to the staff.

Resources to support purpose

Session Five: Progress 

Amabile and Kramer asked managers around the world to rank the most powerful employee motivator. Only 5% of managers ranked the choice, “support for making progress,” in first place. When answering the same question, NDR managers placed “support for making progress” on par with “recognition for good work” in second place after “clear goals.”

The fifth session focused on the intrinsic motivation component of progress, covering the basics from Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer’s book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work.

The authors introduce an important concept called “Inner-work life” (IWL) which is comprised of an employee’s unique perceptions, emotions, and motivations that help them navigate the workday and make sense of what happens around them. Normally invisible to others including supervisors, inner-work life could also be described as moment-to-moment employee engagement. Employees with positive IWL pay attention, engage in team projects, and hold fast to the goal of doing a good job. Positive IWL drives creativity, productivity, collegiality, and commitment in an upward spiral.

After analyzing over 12,000 daily diary entries of 238 employees at 7 companies, Amabile and Kramer discovered what they named the Progress Principle, that is, the most significant driver of positive inner work life is making progress in meaningful work. Their analysis revealed that it was not incentives, interpersonal support, recognition, or clear goals that most motivate employees. Employees’ best days were characterized by progress in meaningful work. The reverse was also true. Bad days were laden with setbacks, situations where progress was blocked or the work moved backward in some way.

In addition to progress on meaningful work, Amabile and Kramer posit that managers can improve their employees’ IWL by supporting their work with “catalysts” and creating positive interpersonal events with “nourishers.” (The opposites are “inhibitors”” which negatively affect work/projects and “toxins” which negatively affect people.) Many of these catalysts and nourishers will look familiar to those who have been following along with the intrinsic motivation series.

Catalysts to Support the Work: Setting clear goals; allowing autonomy; providing resources; providing sufficient time; helping with the work; learning from problems and successes; and allowing ideas to flow.

Nourishments to Support the Person: Respect; encouragement; emotional support; and affiliation.

Group discussion yielded several best practices that managers can use to shift the emphasis to progress.

Best Practices for Managers

  • Set better goals: smaller, more specific goals will allow you and your employees to track and celebrate progress.
  • Point out progress—however small—when you see it and don’t devalue progress that has been made. Progress will beget more progress.
  • Ask the right questions when coaching employees:
    • What can I do to help?
    • Where would you like your work on this project to be at the end of the week?
    • What is already working that we can build on?
    • What do you see beyond this immediate hurdle? How can I help you to get there?

Resources to Support Progress



Session Six: Conclusion

This session will wrap up the Intrinsic Motivation Series by integrating the principles of intrinsic motivation into coaching conversations. Participants will do some practice coaching in order to prepare for upcoming performance reviews. The session will take place on March 31, 2021 from 3:30 - 5:00 p.m. via Zoom. To participate, please contact Andrew Brown


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