Grow as a Leader with Montessori Principles: Part 3 — Intrinsic motivation

Grow as a Leader with Montessori Principles: Part 3 — Intrinsic motivation

This is the third part of a 6-part series on using the Montessori Principles to guide you as a Leader. Today we will discuss how intrinsic motivation plays a central role in creating effective teams and retaining great employees. If your company struggles to keep their best talents, read on.

What is Intrinsic Motivation

If you have heard of intrinsic motivation, the chances are that it may have come from reading Drive from Dan Pink or watching this youtube explainer:

For many (myself included), this was the entry point for knowing more about Self-determination theory. In simple terms, intrinsic motivation can be explained in contraposition to extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is based on external factors (praise,  rewards and so on) to promote certain behaviours. In contrast, intrinsic motivation comes from within and is anchored to innate psychological needs: autonomy, competency/mastery, relatedness.

In the Montessori approach, when they talk about intrinsic motivation, they primarily focus on competency/mastery: our innate desire to get better at what we do. In the remaining article, I'll only focus on this aspect of intrinsic motivation, but if you are interested in an overview of the science behind it, watch this space.

No Gold Stars in the Montessori Classroom

The Montessori method believes that learning is a reward in itself.

Despite rewards (extrinsic motivations) being so common in children's activities, there is robust evidence that extrinsic motivators decrease motivation when the activity is intrinsically stimulating. We may consider fundamental tasks such as independently eating or walking "basic". However, for children learning these tasks, even something as seemingly basic as pouring water in a glass can be incredibly motivating.

With children, two approaches typically use extrinsic motivation extensively; let's look at how leveraging intrinsic motivation would be more appropriate:

  • To use the reward/punishment to incentivise a specific behaviour. The infamous "if...then..." of operative conditioning. "If you put your toys away, then you can watch TV" or "if you don't put your toys away, you can't go out and play with your friends". Instead of using the "if...then..." statements, in this case, help your child embrace the fact that putting away a toy is part of his work and help them understand how to master it.  
  • To praise your child too much and focus the praise on innate qualities instead of outcomes or effort. I wanted to scream at my daughter and the world about how smart she was every time she finished a puzzle or acted kindly with a friend. Instead, I focused my comment on the effort/outcome, "I can see you put a lot of effort into making the puzzle" or "I saw you shared a toy with Elsa; look how happy she is now".

As a parent, I can tell you that it's hard to remove extrinsic motivators from day one entirely: it's always a work in progress. The important point is that if you give your child independence and create an environment that fosters the right behaviours, you automatically remove many situations requiring extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation at Work

First, let's deal with the elephant in the room. At work, we get paid to do our jobs, and most companies have some form of performance-based reward system in place. Those are usually pretty big "if...then..." conditionals and make the motivation system's analysis complex. Therefore, it is essential to clarify that if people are not paid fairly (compared to the market and especially colleagues), it's unlikely they will feel fully motivated.

In companies, we are defaulting to extrinsic motivation with the hope of increasing performance or engagement: this can be an option for highly repetitive and straightforward tasks (intrinsically not motivating). However, extrinsic motivators can be counterproductive in jobs with an element of continuous learning (basically, all positions in technology); in those settings using extrinsic motivators when intrinsic motivation already exists will likely cause a long term decrease in motivation.

Not surprisingly then, most of the time, one of the key reasons employees leave is because they feel they are not growing. What they currently call the "great resignation" doesn't stem from the availability of very well paid jobs but from the fact that people find themselves in jobs that are not meaningful to them anymore and struggle to grow. A few weeks ago, a teammate resigned: this time again, the unsatisfaction that triggered the decision to "look around" was caused by working for too long in an area that didn't allow him to grow in the direction he wanted to grow. At times it can't be helped, and probably it's the best outcome, but it's important to reflect and see if there are systemic issues in place.

Below are the three questions I always ask myself to validate if the right incentives are in place:

  • Do we mix performance reviews and personal development? Avoid having monetary incentives for reaching personal development goals. If your company has performance-based remuneration in place, set them based on team objectives (or personal objectives if you have to) and keep the process to set them up separate.
  • Do we spend enough time helping our teammates identify areas where they want to grow? At times it's just a matter of finding the right resources and opportunities to help the team members grow; at times, you need to help your teammates find the right path. I have seen many engineers unsatisfied with their growth, without a clear idea of what was missing; improving their self-awareness is as important as providing them with a stimulating environment.
  • How much does the "environment" create friction for your teammate's job? Ensure that the DX (Developer Experience) of your team's tools and platforms is excellent. There is nothing more frustrating than having an environment that doesn't allow you to show your full potential; a slow and fragmented DX when solving your daily problems can significantly impair the sense of mastery.

In my experience, if you nail these three points, you are in a great place to foster mastery and keep great people in your team, more than trying to keep them with monetary incentives (assuming those are fair, to begin with).

Next time

In this third part, we have seen the challenges of creating a work environment that nurtures growth and mastery needs rather than focusing only on rewards. Next time, I'll concentrate on freedom within limits: autonomy doesn't mean we can do whatever we want. We will see how being transparent about the boundary of the team's freedom help foster independence.