5 Practices to Promote Deep Engagement in Your Work

May 15, 2016
Todd Hall

When I started working with Meagan,* she was highly engaged in her work as an IT executive for a large healthcare corporation. She enjoyed working with her team and put in the extra hours when necessary to meet her goals and the team’s goals. Her work felt meaningful and contributed to her overall sense of well being. Over a period of a few years, I saw Meagan’s work engagement do a complete 180. Due to several major re-organizations, she had five managers in the span of one year. She didn’t get the chance to get to know her managers, and didn’t feel supported. When her new team finally solidified, it was very disconnected. There was confusion about the priorities and everyone was doing his or her own thing. Meagan’s manager was so overwhelmed that he didn’t have the bandwidth to foster unity or provide direction for the team. Meagan felt disconnected and started questioning her competence even though she was an outstanding performer. She gradually disengaged from her work and experienced some symptoms of burnout. By the end of this period, she told me, “I’m not giving my life up for the company anymore. I’m done.” By “done” she meant that she was done investing personal meaning in her work, and giving it her best effort. That wasn’t good for her well being or her team’s. Meagan’s story, unfortunately, is all too common.

We all want to be engaged in our work. We want our work to matter on a personal level and we don’t want to just go through the motions. All too often, however, one or more of our basic psychological needs aren’t met and we lose our way.

Our needs for autonomy, relational connection, and competence, for example, are constant, and yet the organizational factors that sustain them are fragile. Work and life constantly get in the way. At best, we drift along in the land of mediocrity. At worst, we burn out and become more socially disconnected and emotionally exhausted like Meagan.

Sustained engagement is ultimately about being intrinsically motivated to do your work. Intrinsic motivations are high when our basic psychological needs are met. While you can’t control your work environment, it is possible to foster your own intrinsic motivation. If you’re a manager, there are things you can do to facilitate intrinsic motivation among your team members.

In order to do this, it’s helpful to first take a step back and get a better picture of the landscape of motivation at work.

The Promise and Perils of Extrinsic Motivation (Motivation 2.0)

While biologically based drives to survive (Motivation 1.0) are always at play, the industrial revolution and the advent of “scientific management” led to a focus on extrinsic motivation (Motivation 2.0) to increase performance. Extrinsic motivators work indirectly by gaining a reward or avoiding a punishment. This worked fairly well with routine and repetitive jobs. As we’ve moved into an information age in which 70% of job growth now comes from “heuristic” work [1] that is more creative than routine, it’s become increasingly clear that rewards and punishments don’t generally promote engagement for knowledge workers.

In his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Dan Pink [2] highlights seven problems or “deadly flaws” with extrinsic, or “carrot and stick” motivation:

  1. Extrinsic motivation can actually hinder intrinsic motivation.
  2. Extrinsic motivation can hurt performance.
  3. Extrinsic motivation can diminish creativity.
  4. Extrinsic motivation can hinder good behavior.
  5. Extrinsic motivation can foster cheating and shortcuts.
  6. Extrinsic motivation can promote addiction.

Recent research suggests that instrumental motives, such as external incentives, don’t provide an added boost to performance beyond internal motives. This supports nearly every deadly flaw listed above. For example, Amy Wrzesniewski and her colleagues followed 10,000 West Point cadets over a decade and found that instrumental motives weakened the positive association between internal motives (those inherent in military service) and positive outcomes (e.g., becoming commissioned officers, extending service beyond the initial obligation, and being selected for early career promotions) [3].

We’re discovering that what does work is intrinsic motivation (Motivation 3.0)—activities that are inherently motivating because of the enjoyment in doing them.

These activities aren’t motivating as a means to some other end. The move to intrinsic motivation in the workplace is underway, but we have a long way to go.

Cracking the Employee Engagement Code: Mapping Intrinsic Motivation (Motivation 3.0)

The concept of employee engagement, first introduced by Gallup, roughly maps onto the concept of intrinsic motivation at work. Gallup defined engagement as “the individual’s involvement and satisfaction with as well as enthusiasm for work.” [4] Enthusiasm and satisfaction point to intrinsic motivations being at play. Gallup reported links between employee engagement and productivity, employee retention, and customer service.

Since then, more research has corroborated this link and organizations and researchers have continued to try to crack the engagement code. Along the way, many definitions of engagement have been offered, causing confusion. Consider this list of key terms pulled from four representative definitions from the academic and practitioner literatures [5]:

  • involvement
  • enthusiasm
  • energy
  • believe in
  • feel valued
  • commitment
  • length of stay
  • how hard a person works
  • positive attitude
  • expression of preferred selves
  • state of mind characterized by vigor, dedication and absorption
  • psychological presence in role activities
  • sense of personal fulfillment

With so many terms and concepts under the rubric of “engagement” it becomes difficult to know how to systematically promote engagement in the workplace and how to foster your own engagement. However, most of these ideas have to do with meeting our basic psychological needs, which provide the necessary conditions for intrinsic motivation. A number of psychological theories and studies are beginning to provide an organizing framework for psychological needs that can be linked to performance. Two levels of Motivation 3.0 are emerging. What I am calling Level 1 refers to psychological needs, or motivations, common to all people, and Level 2 refers to motivations unique to each person—what my colleagues and I call “core motivations.” I will focus here on level 1. In a later post, I’ll address level 2, or core motivations.  However, you can learn more about the concept and our assessment, the MCORE, here.

Self Determination Theory (SDT)

One of the dominant psychological theories that has been applied to work engagement is Self Determination Theory (SDT), developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan [6].

SDT, which has been studied extensively in the lab and in the field, suggests that human beings have three innate needs: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

The idea is that autonomy, or perceived choice, is the key factor that promotes behaviors becoming increasingly internally motivated, or “self-determined.” All three needs are viewed as universal necessities that need to be satisfied for optimal human functioning. A large body of research supports the theory that the satisfaction of these psychological needs is linked to intrinsic motivation, which in turn predicts increased well being and work performance.

For example, Harry Reis, a leading social psychologist, and his colleagues found that the more people characteristically experienced satisfaction of these needs, the higher their well being was. In addition, they found that daily fluctuations in the satisfaction of these three needs predicted daily fluctuations in well being, above and beyond the variability predicted by trait measures [7]. SDT proposes that organizational climates that promote satisfaction of the three psychological needs promote employees’ intrinsic motivation, which in turn improves various work outcomes such as: 1) sustained behavior change; 2) higher performance, especially on tasks related to creativity, cognitive flexibility, and conceptual understanding; 3) job satisfaction; 4) positive work-related attitudes; 5) organizational citizenship behaviors; and 6) psychological adjustment and well being [8]. A number of studies support this general line of theory. For example, Edward Deci and colleagues found that satisfaction of employees’ needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness at work predicted work engagement and well being on the job in Bulgaria and the United States [9]. Another study found that satisfaction of these three needs predicted employees’ performance evaluations [10].

So, when people perceive that they have choice, feel connected to others, and feel a sense of competence in their work, they are more motivated and engaged in their work.

One example of how SDT is being applied in organizations is the concept of ROWE—a results-only work environment. ROWE, a concept developed by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson who are former Best Buy HR executives, emphasizes autonomy by allowing employees the freedom to work how, when, and where they want. The only thing that matters is that they get their work done. Jeff Gunther, CEO of Meddius, began experimenting with a ROWE in the first quarter of 2009 [11]. He threw schedules out the window. Employees could come and go as they please and work wherever they wanted. They continued to have specific goals and deadlines, and Gunther was there to assist and support, not micromanage his creative “partners.” After three months, he saw performance increase and continued to operate his business as a ROWE.

If we think about how my client Meagan stacked up in terms of the satisfaction of these three psychological needs, it wasn’t a pretty picture. She did have some sense of autonomy in day to day tasks, but not in overall strategic goals. These were often pushed down from the top with little discussion and no good rationale. She felt a low sense of relatedness because her manager was too busy to attend to her team and her team was fragmented. She began questioning her competence because the goals were often totally unrealistic. Sadly, just as we would expect, her performance and well being suffered.

Inner Work Life

While scholars and practitioners have been applying SDT to work life, Harvard professor Teresa Amabile and developmental psychologist Steven Kramer have been exploring what they call “inner work life” to better understand what motivates people at work [12].

If you have a positive inner work life, you experience consistently positive emotions, strong (intrinsic) motivation, and positive perceptions of your organization, your work, and your colleagues.

In a longitudinal study in which they analyzed nearly 12,000 diary entries, Amabile and Kramer measured inner work life with three components: 1) perceptions of autonomy in their work, and support from their team, supervisor, and organization; 2) emotion or overall mood; and 3) intrinsic motivation. They sought to uncover how inner work life translates into better performance, and what promotes inner work life.

They found that when each of the three aspects of inner work life was high, employees reported higher levels of creativity, productivity, commitment, and collegiality. For example, if an employee reported a positive mood on a given day, there was a 50 percent increase in the odds of that person having a creative idea that day. In fact, positive mood on a given day predicted creativity on the following day.

A positive inner work life is clearly a good thing for individual employees’ well being and performance, but what about for organizational performance? James Harter of Gallup and his colleagues set out to answer this question. Using data from 141,900 employees from over 2,000 business units, they found that job satisfaction, and perceptions of their organization, managers, colleagues, and work predicted sales, profitability, customer loyalty, and employee retention. In addition, they found that employee perceptions at earlier time points were much stronger predictors of later organizational performance than vice versa. This is a key findings because it supports a forward causality of inner work life causing stronger organizational performance [13].

Inner work life, then, promotes stronger individual and organizational performance. Amabile and Kramer also set out to discover what promotes inner work life.

They found three key influences on inner work life: 1) events signifying progress in meaningful work (the progress principle); 2) events supporting the work (the catalyst factor); and 3) events supporting the person (the nourishment factor).

Of these three factors, progress was the largest facilitator of a positive inner work life. The mirror image of this is true as well. Of all the negative predictors, the most powerful was setbacks in work.

Progress in meaningful work, then, is key to a robust inner work life. My client Meagan wasn’t experiencing a sense of progress, or relational or practical support. This led to a negative inner work life for her.

Connected Motivation

In order to investigate the relationship between numerous psychological needs and work performance as well as leadership virtues and practices, my team and I developed a measure, the Connected Motivation Inventory (CMI), to assess the degree to which several foundational psychological needs are being met in one’s work [18].

We integrated several lines of theory and research including Self-Determination Theory [14], existential psychology [15], inner work life theory [16], and broaden-and-build theory [17] to identify six intrinsically motivating psychological needs. We also included one scale assessing extrinsic motivators, resulting in seven factors:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Competence
  3. Relatedness
  4. Purpose
  5. Progress
  6. Positive emotion
  7. Extrinsic motivation

The satisfaction of these six primary needs produces a sense of connection to one’s self, and to one’s work and organization in a workplace context.

In a sample of nearly 200 managers from across the U.S., we found that employees’ perceptions of a healthy organizational culture (strong vision, high valuing of people, and strong sense of voice, or information flow—what we refer to as a Connection Culture) among their team strongly predicted a composite of the six intrinsic psychological needs on the CMI (correlation = .60, accounting for 36% of the variance). The correlations ranged from .47 to .71, the strongest one being with relatedness.

In turn, we found that the satisfaction of the six intrinsic psychological needs predicted stronger team performance (average correlation = .53, accounting for 28% of the variance), and higher job satisfaction (average correlation = .55, accounting for 30% of the variance).

How, then, do you promote intrinsic motivation at work? Here are 6 practices to help you and your team.

5 Practices to Promote Deep Engagement in Your Work

1. AUTONOMY: Find the places where you have choice.There are likely many things in your work context over which you don’t have choice. Focus on those areas in which you do have choice and foster mindfulness of your autonomy in those areas. Leverage the choices you do have to meet the other psychological needs like connection and growing in competence. If you’re managing others, leverage your autonomy to help meet your employees’ need for autonomy. Creating a ROWE environment is one example of how you can do this.

2. RELATEDNESS: Connect to your colleagues.Our need for relational connection is perhaps our strongest psychological need. We are social beings and we need healthy relationships to thrive. Think about ways you can foster stronger connections with your co-workers. For example, attend that work social function you were going to skip to get a few things checked off your list, and be intentional about connecting with a few people. Be present, find common ground, and be curious about their experiences. If you’re managing, make a point to get to know your people on a personal level. Also, provide the structure for your team to connect more personally.

3. COMPETENCE: Engage in deliberate practice.In order to continue growing in competence, engage in deliberate practice of your skills. This involves finding the right level of challenge so things aren’t too easy or too hard. Stretch yourself just outside your comfort zone. If you’re managing others, encourage your people to learn from other fields, and set concrete goals to improve their skills.

4. PURPOSE: Get clear on your purpose.The most profoundly motivated people are those who are pursuing a cause larger than themselves. Find your purpose, your calling, something that brings you joy and improves others’ well being. Clare Boothe Luce, one of the first women to serve in the US Congress, once told President John F. Kennedy, “A great man is one sentence” [19]. The legacy of a great person can be captured in one sentence because it’s singular and clear.

So, as you think about your purpose, start with this big question: “What’s your sentence?”

Then, you need to drill down. Understanding your strengths and core motivations will help you zero in on the work you were meant to do. Ask yourself a more narrow question: What have you done that: 1) you did really well; 2) brought you joy; and 3) created value for others? As you gain a more clear sense of your purpose, then evaluate how well your various job tasks and roles fit with this larger purpose. Work on small shifts that will align your day-to-day tasks more with your larger purpose. As a manager or influencer, help people connect to a larger purpose. To do this, you must tell a compelling story about the quest your team is pursuing.

5. PROGRESS: Focus on progress in meaningful work.For the progress principle to operate, the work doesn’t need to be profound. It just needs to be meaningful to you. So, spend some time reflecting on what is meaningful to you. It could be encouraging colleagues, exceeding expectations for customers, or providing a key function that your team needs. Also, think about how you can infuse, or create meaning in your work. Then set clear short term goals that mark progress along the way to longer-term goals. Focus on small wins as this will give you a sense of momentum and progress that spur you on to keep going. If you’re managing others, be intentional about removing barriers that cause setbacks as much as you can. Also, celebrate the small wins of your people and your team.  If you foster these five psychological needs, positive emotions will follow, which in turn will broaden your attention, thinking, and insights.

Destinations are important, but they’re ultimately markers of progress on the life-long journey toward a larger purpose.

I hope these practices help you engage more deeply in work that is personally meaningful to you.

* I have changed the name and details changed to protect confidentiality.


[1] Johnson, B.C., Manyika, J.M., and Yee, L.A. (2005). The next revolution in interaction. McKinsey Quarterly, 4, 25-26.

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

[3]. Wrzesniewski, A., Schwartz, B., Xiangyu, C., Kane, M., Omar, A., & Kolditz, T. (2014). Mutliple types of motives don’t multiply the motivation of West Point Cadets. Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, Vol 111 (30). 10990-10995.

[4]. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., & Hayes, T.L. (2002). Business-unit level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 268-279.

[5] Zigarmi, D., Nimon, K., Houson, D., Witt, D., & Diehl, J. (2009). Beyond engagement: Toward a framework and operational definition for employee work passion. Human Resource Development Review, 8(3), 300-326.

[6]. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan & R. M. (Ed) Ryan (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation. (pp. 85–107). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

[7]. Reis, H. T., Sheldon, K. M., Gable, S. L., Roscoe, J., &Ryan, R. M. (2000). Daily well-being: the role of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26, 419–435.

[8]. Gagne, M. & Deci, E.L. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. J. Organiz. Behav. 26, 331–362. Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/job.322.

[9]. Deci, E. L., Ryan, R. M., Gagne´, M., Leone, D. R., Usunov, J., & Kornazheva, B. P. (2001). Need satisfaction, motivation, and well-being in the work organizations of a former Eastern Bloc country. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 930–942.

[10]. Baard, P. P., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). The relation of intrinsic need satisfaction to performance and wellbeing in two work settings. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 2045–2068.

[11]. Pink, D.H. (2009) Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books, p. 85.

[12]. Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

[13]. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, E.L., Asplund, J.W., Killham, E.A., & Agrawal, S. (2010). Casual impact of employee work perceptions on the bottom line of organizations. Perspectives on psychological science, 5, 378-389.

[14]. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Motivation, personality, and development within embedded social contexts: An overview of self-determination theory. In R. M. Ryan & R. M. (Ed) Ryan (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of human motivation. (pp. 85–107). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

[15]. Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[16]. Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

[17]. Frederickson, B.L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden and build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.

[18]. Rugg, J., Hall, T.W., Burkus, D. (2016). Connected leadership: The Development of a relational virtue model and measure of leadership. Paper to be presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Denver, CO.

[19]. Pink, D.H. (2009) Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books, p. 154.

More From Dr. Todd Hall

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If You Want to Live a Compelling Life Story, Start With Coherence

To Improve Employee Engagement, Focus on Building Bonds of Trust, Not External Incentives

Todd Hall, Ph.D. is Chief Scientist and cofounder of Connection Culture Group. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall's work at drtoddhall.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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