“Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose”


Didier Marlier

October 03, 2010

From Disruption to Engagement

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“Scanning the periphery”[1] is the advice given by G. Day and P. Schoemaker in a typical HBR article (starting well by providing an inspiring insight then… crashing in flames when suggesting traditional old ways of thinking and 21 steps recipes). Scanning the periphery is what the partners and friends of our Enablers Network do most of the time and nothing excites us more than seeing emerge from different places a promising theme which will help us support leaders and their organizations.

Ben Clayton-Jolly, Gerd Leonhard and Michael Newman sent me a link to this clip (originally presented by the Royal Society of Arts) of Daniel Pink.

Daniel relates an interesting study run by the famous M.I.T. seeking to understand the impact of financial incentives on employees’ motivation. Participants were offered low, medium or high financial reward depending on their results in a series of tasks going from physical, mechanistic (boring and repetitive) to more highly cognitive  (interesting) ones. The results showed that people tended indeed to perform better when offered higher financial rewards on physical/mechanistic jobs but that higher financial compensations were in fact counterproductive for cognitive, “intellectual” tasks.

For Pearl, “Knowledge Workers” are motivated by:

  • Autonomy: Seligman, the “father” of Positive Psychology, said nothing else when the results of his works showed that people who are “happy” on a sustainable basis report that they feel “in control” of their lives. They are just the opposite of being “victims of circumstances”. Pink calls Autonomy our “desire to be self directed”. Just like us in our book[2], he differentiates compliance from engagement. Meg Wheatley summarizes this elegantly: “Even if we insist on obedience, we will never gain it for long, and we only gain it at the cost of what we wanted the most: loyalty, intelligence and responsiveness”. So, yes Daniel, it seems that quite a few of us agree with you here!
  • Mastery: “The urge to get better at stuff” is how Pink describes it. Csikszentmihalyi who strongly inspired us in our “Energy Model”[3], claims that, in his research, people are “in the flow” (a term since intensively used in sports psychology) when they feel that their skill level his high (they are well prepared, self confident, they “master” their art) and highly challenged (which he calls arousal). Fun, satisfaction and challenge are words used by Pink to describe this powerful motivator.
  • Purpose: Such diverse people as Lt. General Van Riper (retired US Marines General), Meg Wheatley (lead thinker on Complex Adaptive Theory applied to leadership), Brafman and Beckstrom (mentioned in this blog for their Apaches vs Aztecs/Mayas comparison), Seligman finding that the second criteria defining sustainable happiness is the sense of Purpose, Joseph Campbell (Monomyth, universal myth, Hero’s Journey) and his “follow your bliss” which David Pearl (unrelated to Daniel!) transformed into “having a Deep Intent”, all talk about something similar too. As I like to say, it is not “increasing shareholder value” that gets passionate, entrepreneurial and dedicated people out of bed in the morning…

Although the clip is slightly longer than usual, I recommend you watch it as Daniel isupports his point through research and excellent examples and stories.

Thank you Michael, Gerd and Ben for bringing this to my attention and encouraging me to share it.

Paris, Geneva and Paris again are on the menu of this coming week. Please share with me clips, themes or ideas that have inspired you! Have a great week all!

[1] G. Day & P. Schoemaker “Scanning the periphery” HBR R0511H November 2005

[2] D. Marlier & C. Parker “Engaging Leadership” (2009) Palgrave McMillan

[3] Thanks to Prof. James Teboul from Insead for having corrected a previous article of mine attributing most of this to the sole Michael Apter

1 Comment

  1. Chris Parker

    Fantastic, inspirational and very true…


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