Motivating by Mastery

The striking insight here is that the single greatest motivator in work by far is making progress in meaningful work. A sense of progress is inherently motivating.


One of the most important pieces of research and talent in the last 20 years, by my estimation, is the work of Harvard Business School’s, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. And they did this incredible piece of research a couple of years ago where they went to a number of organizations and got some volunteers. And what the volunteers volunteered for was to receive an email at the end of every day saying, how was today, were you motivated, were you not motivated. And then people would answer the email, saying I was motivated because of this, I was not motivated because of that, today was terrible because of this, today was awesome because of that. Now we all know at the end of the day how today was. And so by asking people this question and essentially compiling these mini daily diaries of their experience at work you get a remarkable insight into the on‑the‑ground, day‑to‑day motivation of people on the job.

So they crunch all of these emails, all of the qualitative data in these emails. And what they found out is this, the single biggest motivator by far was this, by far, was this: Making progress in meaningful work. The days people were making progress were the days they were motivated. Now this is so powerful. And it’s also so intuitively sensible. What employees love, actually what all of us love, is being able to do something today that we didn’t know how to do last year. That’s progress. That’s mastery. They’re getting better at something that matters. And so if people have a sense of moving forward, of getting better, of progressing, that’s what mastery is really all about. And it’s something that is inherently motivating. And that’s something we forget about. That as we pursue mastery outside of our work lives why do people do sports on the weekends? Why do people play musical instruments? They’re not making any money off of it. Why do they do it? Because they want to beat their personal best. They want to play that song just a little bit better than they did last time. So we pursue mastery as a powerful motivator in all aspects of our lives. What we really need to do is bring it into the workplace and harness its power there too.

The challenge is that we’re not especially good at putting people in positions where they make progress or helping them see the progress they’re making. And one of the reasons for that is that progress depends on feedback. The only way you know whether you’re getting better, the only way you know whether you’re moving forward is if you’re getting information on how you’re doing. And a lot of the feedback mechanisms inside of companies are fundamentally broken. Formal performance appraisals, they’re a joke. We all know that. And the evidence shows that they have very, very little effect on performance. And when they do have an effect on performance it’s often a negative effect.

So what we have to do is look for ways to increase the metabolism and relevance of feedback inside of organizations. What’s difficult is that no one ever taught us how to do this. They taught us how to give feedback in a very formulaic, formal, stiff way. What you need to think about as an entrepreneur running a company is how do you simply say thank you to people more, how do you help people get quick, instant informal feedback on what they are doing, how can you have a continuous conversation with people. Not a conversation where you check in once or twice a year, but a continuous conversation, less formal, more informal, more continuous, more organic.

You know, I think one of the key principles of leadership in entrepreneurial companies, or any kind of organization, is the principle of talking less and listening more. And one way to listen more is simply to ask questions. What are you working on is a great question. Not in an accusatorial way, what are you working on, but what are you working on? How’s it going? Anything I can do to make it a little bit easier? What are some of the obstacles that you’re facing? What are some barriers in the way of doing your job better? Maybe you can have standing up, weekly one‑on‑ones where people check in and you give them feedback on how they’re doing. Anything you can to make the feedback inside of a company as rich and robust as it is outside of the company, you build your organization around progress. And if you come up with ways to give people feedback so they know they’re making progress, you’re going to have a supremely, supremely motivated workforce.

So whether your company makes progress, whether your company grows, depends very heavily on whether the individuals inside the company are themselves making progress in meaningful work, are themselves getting better at something that matters, are themselves pursuing mastery. When individuals make progress, the progress of the company often just takes care of itself.

Suggested Readings

Founders School || Leadership and Motivation || Motivating by Mastery || Impact Guide (PDF).

Pink, Daniel H. 2009. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books. Chapter 5 “Mastery”.

Amabile, Teresa and Steven Kramer. “Do Happier People Work Harder?” New York Times, September 3, 2011.

Gallo, Amy. How to Reward Your Stellar Team. Harvard Business Review Blog Network. August 1, 2013.

Questions for You

Why is mastery important to me?

How can I foster mastery in the people that work with me?

Progress depends on feedback. Where do I get feedback?

How can I talk less, and listen more?

Tools and exercises

Try weekly meetings to check in on progress, give feedback on performance.

Make a list of the ways in which you’ve progressed during the last six months, the last year? What satisfaction have you derived from that process?