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Why Autonomy, Mastery and Relatedness – The Three Pillars of Self Determination – are so Hard to Achieve

I have not spoken to many people who have seen Dan Pink’s TED talk ‘The Puzzle of Motivation’ and are not convinced by his arguments. Yet, more than 10 years after he published his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, we see very little application of his work.  on which his talk was based, why don’t we see more application of the scientific drivers of intrinsic motivation? It is as if a large part of the business world and wider society (yes, I mean you education sector!) read it and moved on with their unaltered, incentive-driven lives. Why has this simple truth not been put into practise?

In my opinion, there is a simple explanation: it’s bl**dy hard. It is hard for both the leadership and hard for the team members. I know this because I see it every day with leaders and teams I work with, and more importantly I know it as the leader of my team. At Productivity People, we take our responsibility very seriously as mentors and coaches whose support and advice impact decisions that directly affect the success of our clients, and with it, the people of the enterprise and their families. Consequently, we have adopted Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose as the three founding pillars of our firm. We believe this is the best way to achieve and sustain the outcomes our clients seek. So, what is so blo**dy hard about these three pillars?

Mastery – or being the most skilled and knowledgeable in your field – is ‘easy’. It requires commitment to life-long learning and a yearning to stay ahead of the curve. Which requires a tenacity and humility and willingness to sacrifice the now for the future … ok, maybe not easy, but with a clear pathway to accomplish it.

Purpose, or relatedness, is about working towards something larger than yourself. In our case, this is about having such a significant impact on New Zealand’s productivity, that it changes regional and national wealth and well-being. In a sustainable way, which means that it is owned by the recipients. Spending enough ‘team time’ together, listening to your fellow team members’ view on their values, their purpose, their hopes and aspirations builds connection and a joint purpose. It is not fast, but with care and dedication you will get there eventually.

So that leaves autonomy as the hard nut to crack, why? Because it introduces uncertainty and ambiguity? Because it erodes traditional power? Because it rips away the safety net of “just doing what I’m told” and replaces it with transparent accountability? In the TED talk by Martin Danoesastro, we are asked “What are you willing to give up?” to build the fast, flexible and creative teams needed to challenge entrenched work culture. To establish intrinsic motivation, not an incentivised construct of external control. Tough question indeed.

Autonomy was the main topic for our recent Productivity People team days in Tauranga. We challenged ourselves to think about what an autonomy mindset means for us, how we can express that in routine behaviours and actions, and what we were willing to give up. These were meaningful discussions and I’m proud to be a member of this team, forging forward. As Albert Einstein said: “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed”.