Old Ship Sailing MastsMotivation works

In 1757 Admiral John Byng was shot by firing squad on the quarter-deck of the ship, HMS Monarch, as a result of his leadership in the Battle of Minorca, at the beginning of the Seven Years War. Voltaire commented in his book, Candide, that “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”.

Byng was condemned for failing to “do his utmost” to prevent Minorca from falling to the French and it ushered in a period of British naval supremacy that lasted to the beginning of World War 1. To say that other naval officers were motivated to avoid a similar outcome is like the old joke about a pig and a chicken observing the farmer having ham and eggs for breakfast. In their world, the chicken is interested but the pig is committed.

Understanding motivation today

Motivation has been the subject of a great deal of research in psychology, business and economics over an extended period of time. It cannot be directly observed but it is reflected in an individual’s behaviour which does, in turn, have a direct impact on business performance and results. In the context of work it is defined as a:

“…  set of energetic forces that originates both within as well as beyond an individual’s being, to initiate work-related behavior and to determine its form, direction, intensity, and duration.” (Pinder, 1998, p.11)

These forces are the intrinsic and extrinsic factors of motivation, where the former are already part of the individual and the latter are, to varying degrees, internalised to become part of the individual’s view of the world. This process of internalisation is a continuum that extends from amotivation, complete disengagement with no commitment, through to autonomous motivation, complete engagement and commitment. Early research on motivation was focused on the extrinsic nature of incentives and rewards and their effects on behaviour, but as the research and theory have developed, a stronger understanding has formed around the inter-action of these extrinsic and intrinsic factors of motivation and their influence on behaviour.

Motivation and Self Determination Theory

A signficant step forward in the theory of motivation is called Self Determination Theory. It takes a holistic view of motivation, in terms of psychological well-being and extends beyond the work context. With a growing empirical base, its theoretical foundation is that there are three fundamental psychological needs required for a person’s well being:

  • Autonomy – reflecting the ability of an individual to choose to engage in a behaviour because it is compatible with his or her values, not as independence, but personal volition.
  • Competence – a sense of proficiency and feelings of effectiveness in one’s work.
  • Relatedness – being connected to others and interdependent with them as part of a group.

Daniel Pink has made the theory more approachable in a TED talk as well as in his book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. He sets out the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and the willingness of people to go the extra mile, explaining that people respond to goals, incentives and rewards in different ways.

Built upon a solid empirical foundation, the research around motivation is helping us to understand its complexity as well as its variability across people. For example, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that having an incentive program that applies uniformly across an organisation may not have the desired effect across all individuals. However, the perceptions held by those individuals about the true meaning behind the reward: for example, whether it is intended to control them or recognise their competence, comes into play. They will judge the transparency and fairness of the evaluation and reward process to decide the extent of their investment.  If they are to form an accurate perception of this intent, the process needs to be transparent, relevant and procedurally fair. Positive perceptions of this intent are more strongly associated with the idea of autonomous motivation and “going the extra mile”.

Understanding motivation is central to being an effective manager. It is also an important capability development priority because it presents as both an opportunity and a challenge. Business leaders have long realised that there are significant costs not only in employee churn but also in a lack of commitment and engagement in undertaking the tasks that need to be done, as well as those that are directly assigned and monitored. In other words, most organisations want employees who are proactive and engaged with the interests of the organisation, not just prepared to do only what they are told.


Pinder, C. C. (1997). Work motivation in organizational behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Gagné, M. (2014). The Oxford handbook of work engagement, motivation, and self-determination theory.

Lovill, J. (1999). Notable historical trials. London: Folio Society.

Voltaire, ., Smollett, T., Barnes, J., & Blake, Q. (2011). Candide, or, Optimism. London: Folio Society.