In my previous post, I’ve been discussing the three keys to motivation managers can use to motivate people at work:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Relatedness
  3. Competence

The third psychological need that people want at work, besides 1) autonomy and 2) relatedness, is a feeling of competence. People are motivated at work to master tasks and learn new things.


“Competence is our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It is demonstrating skill over time. It is feeling a sense of growth and flourishing.” ~ Susan Fowler, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging

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. What was it that motivated them? The answer is threefold:

  • The monkeys’ survival didn’t depend on solving the puzzles.
  • They didn’t receive any rewards, nor avoid any punishments, for their work.
  • They solved the puzzles because they had a desire to do so.

As to their motivation, Harlow offered a novel theory: “The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.” That is, the monkeys performed because they found it gratifying to solve puzzles. They enjoyed it, and the joy of the task served as 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 motivational drive:

  1. The first drive for behaviors is survival. We drink, eat and copulate to ensure our survival.
  2. The second drive is to seek rewards and avoid punishment.
  3. The third drive is intrinsic: to achieve internal satisfaction.

What Motivates People?

Twenty years passed before psychologist Edward Deci, now a professor at the University of Rochester, followed up on Harlow’s studies.

In 1969, he ran a series of experiments that showed students lost intrinsic interest in an activity when money was offered as an external reward. These results surprised many behavioral scientists. Although rewards can deliver a short-term boost, the effect wears off. Even worse, rewards can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue a project.

Deci and Richard Ryan later expanded on the earlier studies. Their Self-Determination Theory proposed three main intrinsic needs involved in self-determination, each of which is universal, innate and psychological:

  1. Competence
  2. Autonomy
  3. Psychological relatedness

Deci proposed that human beings have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn. Unlike drives (for thirst, food and sex), these needs are never completely satisfied. Even after we attain degrees of competency, autonomy and relatedness, we still want more.

Trying to motivate people with the promise of rewards simply doesn’t work. You cannot impose growth, learning and meaning upon people; they must find it for themselves. But you can promote a learning environment that doesn’t undermine people’s sense of competence.

What’s been your challenge with motivating people? You can contact me here or on LinkedIn.