The ABC drivers of Intrinsic Motivation


Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?/Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head/Pretending he just doesn’t see?/The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/The answer is blowin’ in the wind. (Blowing in the Wind, Bob Dylan)

When we talk about Employee Engagement, the discussion is essentially about motivation. Engagement is in fact, at some level a consequence of Motivation – a sort of end state if you may.

When I meet senior executives in organizations, a common lament is that ‘quality’ talent is so difficult to find. And if it’s a group of executives, then you can be assured a passionate discussion on a broken education system, exorbitant pay packages offered by rival companies, attraction to go abroad etc. will ensue

I usually try to bring up the topic of motivation and get them to talk about it. It works sometimes, but sadly more often than not – it gets pooh-poohed. One (very smart) executive recently told me bluntly – ‘ the very act of accepting the job offer represents motivation to work here. Why should we need to keep providing additional motivation? Nobody was motivating me with badges and games all these years!’

The lady had a point. Her conclusion was erroneous but her premise was not totally incorrect.

Accepting the job offer represents the first step in a journey with the organization (and with everything else that comes as a part of the deal – managers, peers and the organizational culture.) When the job offer is taken up, chances are you have crossed the hygiene hurdle of adequate compensation, so I am not considering that in my discussion for the moment.

The paycheck only comes around once a month, but the employee has to deal with the effect of organizational culture, his peers and his managers every single minute that he is at work (and sometimes even when he is away).

In my opinion, there are three questions every executive should try to answer honestly

  • What intrinsic motivations can this candidate have to work with me?
  • What intrinsic motivations can this candidate have to work with my team?
  • What intrinsic motivations can this candidate have to work in my organization?

Note that I ask you think about the ‘intrinsic’ motivation. Compensation, Job role, Profile, Designation, Bonus is extrinsic motivations.. Focus on understanding the intrinsic motivations.

Take a few minutes and answer the three questions before reading further. Chances are when you answer each of these questions candidly; you will already know why you are not attracting top talent.

The ABC Drivers:

From all the literature I have pored over and the people (team members, managers and leaders) I have talked to, three main drivers of intrinsic motivation stand out – and I call them the ABC drivers of Intrinsic Motivation.

A: Achievement – A sense of accomplishment is a major driver for motivation for anyone who gets up in the morning and goes to work- taking time away from family and battling traffic. Its human nature – If you don’t have a constant sense of achievement, an idea of how you are contributing to the larger ‘story’, your engagement levels crash. Then you are doing ‘something’ with no clue ‘why’ you are doing it (a very common comment I hear!). Managers and leaders who want the best out of their team have a duty to set the context, explain how the tasks are contributing to a larger whole, give constant and constructive feedback and help provide a sense of accomplishment. If any of these pieces are missing, the engagement picture will remain incomplete for the employee.

At some level, your answer to Question 1 as a Manager should address this aspect. If you are a manger who is successful in providing your team members with a sense of achievement, they will always want to work with you!

B: Belief – Employees are highly motivated when they believe that the organization enforces a level playing field. They are motivated when they know that they have the authority to take a decision to solve issues. They are motivated when they know favoritism has no role in decisions taken, when team members are not promoted for being a ‘smoking buddy’ of the manager and when the organization stands behind the employee for doing the ‘right’ thing. A belief that the organization really cares about its stated mission and its employees really does wonders for employee motivation.

This driver should appear in your answer to Question 3 on why should someone want to work for your organization.

C: Camaraderie – Would you want to go to work in an organization where secrecy rules the roost? People in such organizations are afraid to share any information or to collaborate on projects because compensation and career progression depends on information asymmetry. Favoritism, Secrecy, Coteries, Mistrust drives a general feeling of apathy among the employees and engagement levels will be abysmally low. All the bonuses in the world can’t fix this problem.

A sense of camaraderie and teamwork is critical for driving engagement. Employees look forward to work when they get to work along side peers who support and empower them to achieve organizational goals.

This driver should appear in why people would want to work in your team. What kind of team-culture do you have? Do team members support each other? As a manager, do you pave the way for your teams to leverage everyone’s strength or do you ‘divide and rule’?


In Conclusion: If you want to increase employee engagement in your organization, then as managers and leaders – at some point, you will need to ponder over these three questions and see how aligned you are towards enabling the ABC intrinsic drivers among employees. And note that, these are in a way the only things that you need to do, but these should underpin all your thoughts, actions and efforts – otherwise everything you do will ring hollow in the long term.

The Impact of A$s*@!#% on Organizational Performance

AbusiveBoss_The Indian media is at present abuzz with discussions around the ‘Rohtak sisters’. That video, of two fragile looking girls lashing out at men who tried to harass them on a bus (while other passengers just sat there watching them) – got me thinking about the effect of another kind of harassment – workplace bullying.

At some point or the other, we have all had to put up with unpleasant people at the workplace – The kinds who seem to get away with anything because they are ‘rainmakers’ or perceived as ‘too powerful.’ Workplace bullying unlike the pedestrian kind seen on the streets comes in various shades and some of the forms take on a garb of sophistication that makes it very difficult for the victim to attribute as bullying. The term ‘workplace bullying’ often conjures up mental images of a manager who is ranting and screaming or of snide and tangential remarks directed at women in the workplace. These are but just a part of what constitutes workplace bullying and it is by no means limited to Type A aggressive ambitious men (who are incorrectly portrayed as always being extremely aggressive) playing a winner-takes-all game.

‘It is terrifying’

In a study that revealed some startling insights, psychologists at the University of Surrey compared personality profiles of high-level executives with those of criminal psychiatric patients and found that three of the eleven personality disorders were actually more common in the executives.

The executives seemed to be prone to the following three maladies:

  1. Histronic Personality Disorder: People who suffer from this disorder demonstrate a pattern of excessive attention seeking. They tend to show superficial charm, insincerity, and egocentricity and often indulge in manipulative behavior.
  2. Narcissistic Personality Disorder: People suffering from this type of personality disorder are excessively preoccupied with power, prestige and vanity. They are seen to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and have a strong need for constant admiration.
  3. Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder: These are executives who are overtly focused on perfection. They tend to come across as extremely devoted to their work and tend to be rigid and stubborn with dictatorial tendencies.

In his book Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers, Clive Boddy identifies two types of bullying in the workplace:

  1. Predatory Bullies: These are people who enjoy tormenting others just because they can – they are no better than their roadside variants. (The ones that gang up on a soft-spoken member of the team, the ones who pass snide remarks at women in the workplace, the manager who gives a team-member lower rating for no particular reason)
  2. Instrumental Bullies: These are the smart ones. Their bullying is always to further their own goals. More often than not these bullies are narcissists.

Narcissists in the workplace usually resort to indirect (and sophisticated) bullying. Typical tactics include withholding information, leaving team members out of the loop, getting others to keep doing work below their competence level, gossiping and putting down others behind their back.

‘They walk among us’

In his book “The No Asshole Rule” (and the inspiration for the post’s title), Robert Sutton lists down twelve everyday actions that he feels Assholes use:

  1. Personal Insults
  2. Invading one’s ‘personal territory’
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and Intimidation: Verbal and Non-Verbal
  5. ‘Sarcastic Jokes’ and ‘Teasing’ used as insult delivery systems
  6. Flaming e-mails
  7. (IM) Status slaps intended to humiliate others
  8. ‘Status Degradation’ rituals
  9. Rude Interruptions
  10. Two-faced Attacks
  11. Dirty Looks
  12. Treating people as if they were invisible/Ignoring people.

Everyone who has been in a high-pressure situation at work has demonstrated one of more of these behaviours at some point or the other. Sutton points out that psychologists make a distinction between ‘states’ (fleeting feelings/actions) and ‘traits’ (enduring characteristics).

Surveys and research has shown that workplace bullying is not isolated or restriced to a few unlucky ones. In her dissertation titled ‘Workplace Bullying: Aggressive Behaviour and its Effect on Job Satisfaction and Productivity’, presented by Judith Lynn she says:

“The data in this study found that 75% of participants reported witnessing mistreatment of coworkers sometime throughout their careers, 47% have been bullied during their career…”


The (real) impact on Organizations (that put up with A&$*@!#%)

In the past companies (read top management) used to often look the other way when people reported about badly behaved superiors. There are several reasons why this happened. Maybe (and this is often the reason) the intolerable executive was delivering numbers or maybe he was the rainmaker and leadership felt they couldn’t afford to loose him. Sometimes the person is the leader and the culture then percolates down to lower levels of the company.

In his book Sutton gives the example of Linda Wachner, former CEO of Warnaco who would ‘dress down’ her senior executives and made them feel ‘knee-high’. To make matters worse former employees allege that the attacks were ‘personal rather than professional and not infrequently laced with crude references to sex, race or ethnicity’. He also talks about ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap, former CEO of Sunbeam who is described as ‘like a dog barking at you for hours…He just yelled, ranted, and raved. He was condescending, belligerent and disrespectful’

How engaged do you think people working for these leaders felt?

Organizations are waking up to the risks of putting up with people that are mean or ones who sideline people to further their ‘divide and rule’ strategy.

Research has shown that at the very least workplace bullying leads to increase stress among the workforce, which causes disengagement, productivity loss and even health issues. All of these have a real measurable impact on the bottom line at the end of the day. In some extreme cases, that victims display Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – usually associated with severe trauma like rape or being in a conflict-zone.

That’s not all. Companies have to put with the associated costs of increased attrition – not only of the victims but even those who witness it.

Based on replacement cost of those who leave as a result of being bullied or witnessing bullying, Rayner and Keashly (2004) estimated that for an organization of 1,000 people, the cost would be $1.2 million US. This estimate did not include the cost of litigation.

The cost of workplace bullying represents a ‘Clear and Present Danger’ to responsible organizations that are looking to foster a motivating and innovative work culture. It will be nearly impossible for organizations to attract top-talent when a lot of their energy is wasted in managing the fall-out of aggressive behavior or petty-politics.

Good leaders realize this and are starting to take the ‘bull by the horn’. Work Culture is clearly defined and those who seek to undermine it are not tolerated – no matter how important they might seem to the organization. They might be critical today, but the damage they do in the long run will far outweigh any gains they provide.

‘Do you believe your manager/supervisor indulges in manipulative or divisive behavior?’ is a question that might soon start appearing in Employee Engagement Surveys.


In case you are interested, here are some related Tools:

You might feel that none of this applies to you (and you might be surprised). You can take the ARSE (Asshole Rating Self-Exam) here (

If you strongly feel that your boss is the problem, then test your theory. Take the BRASS (Boss Reality Assessment Survey System) Test here (

If you want to get a peek at the Financial Cost of Organizational Conflict, check out the online calculator based on the research of Dr. Dan Dana here. (


Acknowledgements and References:

Image courtesy of


The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton, Piatkus

Narcissism in the workplace, Wikipedia References

Mindlessness: Its impact on Employee Well-being and Performance

Boss-Employee Mindless Conversation

mind·less    (mndls) adj. Giving or showing little attention or care; heedless

If you have been unlucky enough to work with a supervisor who seems to be miles away when you approach him for help or clarity with an issue or maybe worse one who nods off or keeps checking his phone in the middle of a discussion with his team members, then you know exactly what this post is about. Mindless (or rather the lack of a mindful approach) supervision is increasingly seen as a major cause of stress and employee disengagement.

A sense of Interpersonal Justice:

In a study carried out by researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Scientists, researchers showed that infants as young as three months are able to pick up social cues when processing objects in the world around them – scientifically referred to as Social Referencing.

Given that even infants can pick up expressions, its easy to understand how a conversation or an interaction between a supervisor and the team member goes beyond the formal structure or stated intent. Kinesics is the interpretation of body motion communication like facial gestures and expressions. Often when a person says something and doesn’t mean it, the reality is betrayed by subconscious cues.

For example, lets say a team member is in a unaided discussion (i.e. no PPTs or Videos, or audio-visual aids) with her supervisor, going over the performance of a product in the marketplace. The lack of any audio-visual distraction means that she is observing her boss instead of looking at a screen. The discussion starts off with her supervisor launching into a long diatribe about how “we” need to fix the problem, and how “he” will support in any way and how “what has to be done has to be done, lets do it”. Then it’s her turn to tell her thoughts on the issue, and the supervisor is already checking his mails and nodding his head randomly. “Keep going, I am listening,” he says while his non-verbal signals convey an entirely different message all together. Needless to say the team member is not going to have a very good feeling about the conversation or her supervisor.

Mindfulness, or more colloquially the ability to be in the “here and now”, is often associated with improved relationships. When the supervisor is ‘fully present’ in the course of an interaction or conversation with a subordinate, the person feels more valued and as being treated with respect – amounting to a heightened sense of interpersonal justice. Various research studies have found a positive correlation between a sense of interpersonal justice and higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Mindfulness, Employee Performance and Employee Well-Being:

In a rather interesting study done by researchers from Cambridge, NUS and Imperial College, an attempt was made to determine the interpersonal effects of mindfulness in the workplace. The study is different from any done on the impact of behavior of leaders on employees in that it focuses on “how leaders’ quality of awareness and attention influences their employees”

The first hypothesis that the study tested was to check if the trait of mindfulness is positively associated with various facets of employee well being (the study looks at four of them – Employee Emotional Exhaustion, Work-Life Balance, Overall Job Performance and Deviance (Negative/Undesirable actions at work))

The study determined that leader mindfulness was significantly related to both employee well-being and performance measures.

When the supervisor is more mindful,

  • The employee’s emotional exhaustion is lower (r=-0.4)
  • Employee Work-Life balance improves (r=.28)
  • Overall job-performance improves(r=.32)
  • Employee Deviance is lower (r=-.57)

The relationship of mindfulness with various dimensions of employee well-being and performance points to the potentially important role of leading mindfully in organizations.

Tips for leaders to be more mindful at work:

Being mindful is not a fad. Several Silicon Valley Technology firms and Wall Street firms are among those who take it pretty seriously. Google employees have access to an internal course titled “Search Inside Yourself”, which is designed to help them manage their emotions – ideally making them better workers in the process. The cofounders of Twitter and Facebook who have moved on to start new enterprises place a great deal of emphasis on contemplative practices – with regular in-office mediation sessions and optimizing work schedules to maximize mindfulness of their employees.

If you aren’t lucky enough to work at one of these more aware companies, try following one of these tips outline in the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World authored by Dr. Penman.

  1. Keep a three-minute breathing space in between work:

In the course of a work-day there are several events that can be a source of (unnecessary) stress. The easiest way to counterman the effect is to find a quiet place (this could even be your desk), stop whatever it is you are doing and just breathe deeply for three minutes. Couple this with the act of consciously unplugging from all the devices that are constantly throwing a barrage of information and updates at you. The text message, tweet, email, WhatsApp, Facebook update can all wait a few minutes. Don’t eat your lunch in front of your laptop and leave your phone behind. Go to the common area and have an actual conversation with your team member. It will do wonders to the level of engagement.

  1. Make “strategic acceptance” a part of your solution:

When you feel stressed out about something, Dr Penman advises that you don’t try to fix it but forcing yourself to be happy or calm. Just accept how you feel as it is. He does not say you should accept a bad situation, but just accept your feelings and them focus on what you can do to improve it.

     3. Tune into the distractions:

With the advent of open-workplaces and a general lack of real-estate, one has little or no privacy at work. You will have phones ringing, people talking, printers whirring – all of which can be sources of stress. Dr Penman says that instead of fighting the noise and trying to shut it out, tune into it. Notice the sounds around you and try to see if you can isolate the effect they have on your body. The very act of noticing the sound, robs the sounds of their ability to distract and stress you out.

Being more aware of yourself and being mindful will help you engage successfully with your peers and your subordinates in a more effective manner. A 2010 Survey carried out by the Economic Intelligence Unit found that 84% of respondents believed that alienated employees are one of the biggest threats to their business. A quarter of the employees in a survey done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said that their jobs were a major source of stress in their lives.

As a leader, manager, supervisor, you owe it your team to not become the boss everyone hopes will “get removed or kicked upstairs” soon. All it takes is three minutes of deep breathing and some conscious effort.

Acknowledgements and References: 

Image courtesy of

Reb, J., Narayanan, J., & Chaturvedi, S. (2014). Leading mindfully: Two studies on the influence of supervisor trait mindfulness on employee well-being and performance.

How being mindful makes for a happier workplace, Jul 29,2013, Rachel Nickless, Financial Review

In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career, June 18, 2013, Noah Shachtman, Wired

Mindfulness At Work: 5 Tricks For A Healthier, Less Stressful Work Day, June 24, 2013, Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post

Study shows 3-month-olds are sensitive to emotional cues referring to objects in the world, June 10, 2008, (e) Science News.

Re-engaging with engagement, Economist Intelligence Unit

Bad bosses can be bad for your health, August 5, 2012, Sahron Jayson, USA Today

Study: Indian Women Are the Most Stressed on Earth, Rachel Goldstein, July 13, 2011, TIME