Build an environment where intrinsic motivation flourishes

John Hunter

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Editor's note: John Hunter has graciously agreed to allow The W. Edwards Deming Institute and to publish an excerpt from his book, "Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capacity."

Organizations have often so systemically de-motivated people that employees seem to have lost that desire to do good work. Don’t treat this symptom by attempting to motivate using extrinsic motivation, writes contributor John Hunter, focus on eliminating the factors that demotivate them.

Dr. Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge emphasized the importance of recognizing organizations are made up of people.

To improve the performance of an organization that truth must not be ignored.

Too often managers fall into the trap of thinking that their job is to juggle numbers to get numbers that look good. And to use extrinsic motivation to get people to do what those people don't want to do. That isn’t the job of managers. Managers need to create, build and enhance systems that allow the people that are part of that system to create value. Designing and improving the organization (the system) so that those working to provide value to customers can do so, and take pride in what they do, is the job of managers.

The following is the excerpt from John Hunter's book:

Build an environment where intrinsic motivation flourishes

Extrinsic motivation is not an effective way to manage complex human enterprises. This issue is important because there is a huge amount of poor management based on this thinking (focusing on how people need to be fixed/ motivated) instead of on fixing what management really needs to fix.

It is possible to succeed as a manager by viewing your role as helping people do their jobs well. Douglas McGregor termed managing with this midst "theory y management;" "theory x" management is the idea that people should be motivated with carrots and sticks because they are not going to do their work otherwise.


This article is an excerpt from John Hunter's book Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability

Organizations have often so systemically de-motivated people that employees seem to have lost that desire to do good work. Don’t treat this symptom by motivating them with cheap extrinsic motivation tricks. Instead, focus on eliminating the factors that demotivate them.

Managers should focus on eliminating the sources of demotivation in the workplace. If you need hints, Dilbert does a good job of illustrating management practices that are demotivating.

To succeed as a manager, assume that people want to do a good job. If results are not good, the manager needs to figure out what is wrong with the system that leads to the poor outcome (the manager shouldn’t be trying to determine what is wrong with the employees).


When a manger views the problem as one of motivating workers that puts the problem within the worker. The employee needs to be changed. This is the wrong conclusion and the wrong strategy, nearly all of the time. Instead, seek to improve the system to improve performance: build enterprise capability by making the organization stronger with each improvement.

There is often a burden to overcome when trying to focus on improving the system to encourage intrinsic motivation. When people have their intrinsic motivation crushed time after time, day after day, week after week, year after year they try to protect themselves by shutting off their desire to achieve intrinsic motivation at work.

Reigniting this passion may be difficult at first, but the benefits of reawakening this intrinsic motivation are huge. Managers get frustrated when they make a couple of good changes and people are still cynical. However, if people have had their intrinsic motivation crushed for years and decades it may take more than a couple pieces of evidence to convince them that the management system really is changing.

You have to make real changes that show respect for people, and do so consistently. Intrinsic motivation is a strong force and a few early adopters will quickly come along in all but the most broken organizations. You can build on that success (eliminating more and more de-motivation) to grow intrinsic motivation in more and more people and build the enterprise capability.

Instead of trying to motivate people to put the customer first, create an environment where the customer is given proper respect (some examples of companies that do this well: Crutchfield, Trader Joe’s, Southwest, Apple).

Instead of trying to re-motivate people after soul-crushing meetings, eliminate the meetings. Focus on providing meaning to people. Don’t put up slogans, take actions that contradict those slogans and then try to motivate people.

Don’t implement a marketing plan that tells customers to expect one thing and then force staff to deal with customer’s disappointment with what the organization actually delivers. Connect them with the importance of their contributions.

Don’t tell people that they are the most important asset, then layoff hundreds and give the CEO a huge bonus and then see a "motivation" problem. That problem would be a broken management system with executives that should not hold those positions.

Build a culture with respect for people and build joy in work. This strategy will build enterprise capability and an intrinsically motivated workforce.

Copyright 2013 by John Hunter

John also authors the CuriousCat Management Improvement blog and The W. Edwards Deming Institute blog.

Editor’s Note: The columns published in THE DEMING FILES have been written under the Editorial Guidelines set by The W. Edwards Deming Institute. The Institute views these columns as opportunities to enhance, extend, and illustrate Dr. Deming’s theories. The authors have knowledge of Dr. Deming’s body of work, and the content of each column is the expression of each author’s interpretation of the subject matter.