Select Page


Unleashing Intrinsic Motivation Through Servant Leadership
By James Grinnell

The prevailing paradigm of workplace motivation is about to be shattered, at least according to Daniel Pink’s well-grounded book Drive. In this book Pink not only takes a shot across the bow of the mainstream approach to employee motivation, he lands a fatal blow to the midsection.

Pink’s central thesis is that the traditional “carrot and stick” approach worked well in the aseptic mass production environment but is a detriment in creativity-based work settings. The traditional motivation model focused on extrinsic motivations (i.e., using rewards/punishment) to gain employee compliance with organizational expectations. In contrast, the new model taps into intrinsic motivation (i.e., the rewards one experiences internally) to unleash the potential of employees in a mutually beneficial manner. Pink delineates seven unintended consequences of the carrot and stick approach (quoted directly):

  • They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
  • They can diminish performance.
  • They can crush creativity.
  • They can crowd out good behavior.
  • They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.
  • They can become addicting.
  • They can foster short-term thinking.

Pink offers a three-pronged model of intrinsic motivation in which individuals are driven by the need for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Providing autonomy is not a free-for-all by any stretch. Individuals operating in a productive autonomous setting are given clear expectations of outcomes and receive ample feedback along the way. A truly autonomous work setting shifts the focus from a task-oriented to a results-oriented mindset. The benefits of providing autonomy are immense. Not only does employee satisfaction skyrocket, but overall performance spikes as well.

The second leg of Pink’s model mastery relates to the innate desire to become ever better at a task, role, or assignment that one values. Unfortunately, surveys suggest that nearly half of all American workers are not engaged in their jobs. When one is engaged in the process of mastery the world of work collapses into an extension of their inner world. Put differently the task at hand becomes an extension of the individual. The power of mastery is aptly captured by the Confucian proverb “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Lastly, purpose ultimately provides the footing for the previous two pillars of Pink’s formulation. Human beings perform at their best when they believe that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, something enduring. It is important to keep in mind that the sense of purpose is not restricted only to those doing high-level work. I am reminded of the story of a wayward traveler during the Renaissance who came across two laborers working in a clearing. One was glumly carrying stones from one spot to another while the other was performing the same task with a spring in his step and smile on his face. The traveler ask the spirited laborer how he could be so enthused while his partner was not. The laborer responded “You see, my friend believes he is carrying one rock after another for no purpose at all. I carry each rock knowing that each is destined to form a beautiful cathedral in which generations will give their praise to God.”

What Pink fails to do in his book is effectively clarify the role of leadership in his model. The closest he comes to doing so is noting that the new approach is antithetical to the command-and-control, autocratic leadership approach. But the work environment Pink advocates cannot emerge in a vacuum. Building such an organization requires a specific type of leader. In particular it requires one who focuses on the needs of others and emphasizes building a collective community that enables individuals to grow and flourish.

Pink’s model fits hand-in-glove with the servant leadership approach. Servant leadership expert Jim Laub defines servant leadership as such: “Servant leadership promotes the valuing and development of people, the building of community, the practice of authenticity, the providing of leadership for the good of those led and the sharing of power and status for the common good of each individual, the total organization and those served by the organization.” According to Laub, servant leaders demonstrate the following characteristics:

  • They are open and accountable, willing to learn, and demonstrate honesty and integrity.
  • They serve others first, believe in and trusts people, and listen receptively.
  • They provide opportunities for learning, role model appropriate behavior, and build others up through affirmation.
  • They facilitate positive relationships, promote collaboration, and value differences.
  • They share the vision, power, and status.

More than any other type of leader, servant leaders create an environment where others are able to experience the sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It will take time for the extrinsic-oriented, command-and-control mindset of twentieth century management to give way to the intrinsically-focused servant leader mindset. Fortunately, over time leaders exemplifying these ideals plant the seeds of servant leadership amongst those they serve.

James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management. You can read more from James on his blog.

Recommended PM App

Recommended PM App