Two weeks ago I delivered a keynote to a group of lawyers at their annual retreat. In an effort to underscore the fact that many companies focus on money, bonuses and vacations as a way to motivate their employees, I presented the findings of an interesting study which showed that the external factors often emphasized in the workplace, like grade performance, income after graduation, and your class rank, are either not correlated with or only weakly correlated with your well-being at work. So if money, rank and prestige aren’t the right tools to motivate today’s workforce, what works?

For knowledge workers, the research is clear: regular experiences of autonomy (feeling empowered to make meaningful choices about your work), relatedness to others (having at least a few high-quality connections with others), and competence (having the ability to master tasks and be effective at what you do) are consistently found to have the highest correlation with motivation.

Autonomy, connection to others and competence (or mastery) are the three components of Self-Determination Theory, a theory of motivation with decades of research supporting its efficacy. According to Self-Determination Theory, all human beings require regular experiences of autonomy, competence, and connection with others, and when we get these things in a high enough dose, it leads to thriving and positive motivation.

Here’s a closer look at each component:


Employees who are highly autonomous are self-governed and have a great deal of say in how they spend their time and the types of projects they accept. Having an autonomy-supportive supervisor or manager is strongly tied to well-being, while working with a boss with a more controlling style is predictably de-motivating. Importantly, autonomy-support can be taught and research shows that even formerly controlling teachers can be trained to provide better autonomy support to students. Businesses that supported an autonomous environment grew at four times the rate of control-oriented companies and had one-third the turnover.

Leaders can become more autonomy-supportive by showing responsiveness to people’s perspectives, using non-controlling language, and offering opportunities for choice.

Connection To Others

High-quality relationships are a critical component of every happiness metric, from engagement to motivation to resilience and well-being. According to business and psychology professor, Dr. Jane Dutton, there are four distinct pathways for building high-quality connections at work. The first is respectfully engaging others by communicating supportively and being an effective listener. Second, facilitate another person’s success with guidance, recognition and support. Third, build trust, which can be done by relying on another person to follow through on projects and other commitments. Finally, have moments of play. Play evokes positive emotions and is often associated with creativity and innovation.


Mastery is your desire to get better and better at something that matters to you. Law schools and law firms can promote a sense of mastery by allowing students and lawyers, respectively, to have more flow experiences. Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi to describe a person’s optimal balance between boredom (the task falls short of our capabilities) and anxiety (the task exceeds our capabilities).  It is the mental state where people feel like they’re “in the zone,” engaged and working in their sweet spot. In addition to creating the opportunity for more flow experiences, managers can remove barriers to effective performance and provide regular feedback.

Motivation and engagement go hand-in-hand.  From a bottom line perspective, engaged employees perform better on a daily basis, and the higher a person’s level of engagement, the higher their objective financial returns.  In addition, levels of employee engagement were positively related to business performance in the areas of customer satisfaction and loyalty, profitability, and productivity; meaning, higher employee engagement translated into higher customer satisfaction and loyalty, higher profitability, and more productivity.

Ultimately, the messages about predictors of success and well-being, and what it means to thrive at work need to change. Researchers Ken Sheldon and Larry Krieger state it well: “The data contradicts beliefs that prestige, income and other external benefits can adequately compensate a [worker] who has not secured autonomy, integrity, meaningful/close relationships and interest and meaning in her work. The data suggest fundamental changes in the belief system shared by many [employers]. In particular, the shared understanding of “success” needs to be amended so that talented [professionals] more regularly avoid self-defeating behaviors in the pursuit of success.”


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