Autonomy, mastery and purpose: 3 drivers of motivation.


What make us (and the people we work with) really engage in a task? The promise of ‘Fortune and Glory’? Or maybe ‘Fear and Loathing’? These are all common tools people use to manage their own and others’ motivation and engagement. But, maybe this is all wrong… maybe there is a smarter way… In this post, we look at an alternative perspective,focusing on autonomy, mastery and purpose. Read on to find out more….

Autonomy, mastery and purpose

One way of thinking about motivation is through reward and punishment – if we do something well, people give us something. If we don’t, we get something taken away (or something bad is done to us). We can often try and motivate ourselves in the same way – by creating our own carrot and sticks. It seems intuitive – right?

Maybe not… For instance, from a management perspective at least, it seems that once you get beyond pretty simple tasks, paying people more can actually have a detrimental effect on performance 1. We also know we habituate to rewards very quickly (a pay rise doesn’t keep us working harder for long!), and disengage if threatened. So what is the alternative? How else can we motivate ourselves (and others) to do our best? Daniel Pink, in his 2008 book Drive, argues that the traditional ‘carrot and stick’ approach based on rewards and punishments is outdated. Pink argues three new drivers are more important in getting better motivated. So what are they?

  • Autonomy – the feeling (and reality) that you direct your own behaviour

  • Mastery – being good at something, having the opportunity to do that thing, and the opportunity to get even better

  • Purpose – something which has genuine meaning to you

Notice that money and other forms of externally driven incentives don’t feature in the above list. Neither do punishments (such as fear of being canned from your job, or shouted at). Instead, it is features of the work itself, how it is done, and what it means to us which is important.

Autonomy has been of interest to motivation and health researchers for years, and linked not only to better employee performance, but also better subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction 2. However, recent perspectives highlight that, in interdependent teams, it is hard to maintain3. Mastery has been shown to influence other outcomes as well as motivation – for instance increase in mastery observed in mothers over a 3 year period have been used to predict physical health problems from the start of the period and over the subsequent decade 4. Purpose has an effect because it means we value the output in a special way – it fulfils one of our core motives, one of the things we need to [make ourselves happy]. We do these things because we feel they matter.

But I need to eat, right?

Yes you do! It’s important to note Pink’s drivers don’t mean we will be engaged and motivated if no rewards at all are present, or we can motivate others in the same way – indeed it argues that the best thing to do is to reward others to the point they no longer worry about providing themselves with the basic needs (of course, the definition of ‘basic’ varies :-)), and then focus on autonomy, mastery and purpose to get the best motivation and engagement. This is an important point to apply to ourselves and others- unless the basics are met, we (and others) cannot sustain engagement in an activity which doesn’t help address those needs. So, get the basics sorted first!

How can I use this information?

The critical learning point here is that you will be more engaged with what you are doing, in a more sustained manner, if you can relate that activity to these three key motivational drivers. So, set yourself tasks which maximise them. Or, in contrast, if you feel disengaged from something you are already doing,, try and look see if you can re-frame the activity to give it more purpose (or let you achieve greater mastery, etc), or actually change the task to meet these needs.

You can find out more about these ideas in Daniel Pink’s book Drive*


  1. Ariely, D., Gneezy, U., Loewenstein, G., & Mazar, N. (2009). Large stakes and big mistakes. The Review of Economic Studies, 76(2), 451-469. 
  2. Wheatley, D. (2017). Autonomy in paid work and employee subjective well-being. Work and Occupations, 44(3), 296-328. 
  3. Väänänen, A., & Toivanen, M. (2018). The challenge of tied autonomy for traditional work stress models. Work and Stress, 32(1), 1-5. 
  4. King, V., Wickrama, K. A. S., Klopack, E., & Lorenz, F. O. (2018). The influence of mastery on mother’s health in middle years: Moderating role of stressful life context. Stress and Health, Online first 

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