Can Autonomy Mastery and Purpose Work in Today’s Business Environment?

We’ve all been beat over the head for the last 18 months or so with the idea that incentives don’t work.  We’ve watched Wall Street bonuses become the “it girl” for bad incentives.  We’ve read and listened to Dan Pink talk about how incentives are not the best way to drive performance in an organization.  As HR people we get it.  We know a more holistic and enlightened approach is the best way forward.

But a thought struck me as I read yet another survey about employee engagement scores dropping and how companies must apply a longer-term focus on employee development and engagement.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose (AMP) – the Dan Pink solution – can only work if you have a long runway.

In other words… AMP cannot be implemented in a quarter or month or a day.  In order for a company to see any results from a strategy that uses these tools, they need time.

And time we don’t have.

We don’t have it as an organization.  And we don’t have it as employees.

We NEED (Want) It Now

The economy has taken a huge financial toll on our employees.  Raises have become scarce and if they are found at all they are in the very low single digits.  All the while, inflation has maintained its speed.  Even with raises, employees have less money for the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to.  An article on MarketWatch from August  says:

“Employees will get an average increase of about 2.8% in 2012 on average, up slightly from the 2.6% employers said they plan to shell out this year, according to a survey of 773 U.S. companies by Towers Watson, a consulting firm. Those figures include all types of workers, from executives to clerical workers, exempt and nonexempt, salaried and those paid by the hour.”

But the article goes on to say…

“The consumer price index for all urban consumers rose 3.6% in the 12 months ending July 2011.”

This creates a real problem.  Employees are looking for a better way… a better job… better pay, a better benefits package.  And they are looking to get that in the short term.  They need it in the short term.

Companies are looking for more engagement, innovation and commitment.  And they are looking for that in the short term.  They need it in the short term.

Unfortunately, what we all want – can’t be done quickly.

As good, moral corporate people we want to be more sophisticated and run the company based on autonomy, mastery and purpose. And as employees we want to work at a company that gives us those things.

But neither audience wants to wait for them.  The employee needs security and safety.  The company wants confidence the employees will stay long enough so that the AMP approach shows a return.  But it won’t happen.

It’s a push.

Everyone Blinks

When given the opportunity to jump ship to a new company (which always looks better – grass being greener and all) the employee will take that chance.  The devil you know is always scarier than the devil you don’t.  The companies, having little faith their employees will stick around and contribute once given autonomy, mastery and purpose – don’t invest in those elements and end up falling back on the tried and true – reward them now or get them out.

My read – in order for companies and employees to really reach their potential and get what they both want, both groups have to have faith in the future.

But no one does.

Employees don’t trust the company.  The company doesn’t trust the employee.  Result?  They both retreat and go with the less risky approach.  They hold back, they go for the quick win.  They go for the sure thing that is visible and tangible.

For employees, they look for the quick reward –typically the salary increase from a new employer.  For the company – it’s quick rewards and easy interventions– whether incentives for measurable short-term sales increases, cost cutting or impacting some other line item that can be measured in the quarterly reports.

Real engagement that drives real company results is a function of trust and time.  Both of which are in short supply for all interested parties.

For Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose to work, you need to trust your employees and they need to trust your company.

So… my questions:  As employees and organizations, are we in a negative feedback loop?  And if so, what is the way out?

I have some thoughts – but am more interested in yours. Can we actually create the trust needed on both sides in order to leverage the more sustainable motivation and engagement principles or are we doomed to continue short-termism?

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Any organization can start building trust, engagement, performance and retention, tomorrow.
    The points of maximum focus and leverage reside with the people managers who already have the reporting relationships and the responsibility for performance.
    A combination of bottom-up, top-down and middle-up-down will underwrite success and accelerate results.
    Every employee should read and reflect on “Managing Oneself” (Peter Drucker)
    People managers should read Dan Pink’s “Drive”, as well as the “Progress Principle” (Amabile & Kramer).
    Upper-middle managers should become subject matter experts on employee engagement – i.e. able to mentor people managers and observe and counsel business leaders
    HR should facilitate the process, with the most important HR contribution being to assure, through assessments and surveys, that people managers have actionable information about their direct reports – i.e. cognitive, behavioral, interests, team-related, managerial fit, employee cohort(s), etc.
    Business leaders must attend to enterprise purpose, leadership authenticity, business stability & security, deep and abiding concern for employee wellbeing and pervasive trust and trustworthiness.
    With the most successful companies being those that consistently create jobs, enhance jobs and increase profit per employee, any enterprise ought to have the incentive to get with the program. Otherwise the Board of Directors ought to be asking: Why are we laying off workers? Why are we buying back our shares? Are we in a death spiral? Are we imploding?
    Here is an article that expands on many of these ideas.

  2. Chris says:

    First, I find it puzzling that people look at Wall Street and say “see, incentives don’t work!” That’s just wrong. The Wall Street example shows how well incentives do work. It also shows how important incentives are. Incentives are not just about extracting effort. They are also about aligning effort towards the proper activites. This second part is what is most difficult about incentives (and the part that I think is more important). it is why the phrase “perverse incentives” is so prevalent.
    Getting the proper incentives such that they align effort towards the right activites is the hard work of HR. I find, often, that people looking away from incentives towards other feel-goody things are too scared or too engrossed in CYA to take on the hard work of getting incentives right.
    (Oh, and incentives don’t have to be short term either.)
    That said, the greater issue you (Paul) point to is the restlessness of employees today. Which brings me to my second point:
    This is a big problem for companies, but not so much for the workers. For individuals, changing jobs for higher pay today is also the right long term strategy. Research bears this out. Lifetime earnings increase with the frequency of job changing (up to a certain point, although this point is hard to figure because much of the research lacks enough observations at a high enough number of job changes to find the peak). The funny thing is, HR already knows this. One of the greatest pay supression levers in employee tenure.

  3. Paul Hebert says:

    Chris – thanks for weighing in. I agree – incentive work well – too well in fact – that’s why – as you’ve noted they must be designed by someone who undestands how to do to it (me.) You’re right in saying that there is less risk in not doing them than in doing them incorrectly and many would rather CYA than do it right.
    Incentives should be shorter term – but I’m not talking commissions – I’m talking other types. There’s a deeper discussion there.
    Restlessness aside (which I also agree with) – I don’t know if in today’s climate ANYONE has the stomach for the long run – and if they would really be rewarded for it.

  4. Paul Hebert says:

    Richard – I think you missed my point. If you’ve read any of my stuff here or on my own blog – I think the AMP process pushed in the Drive book is unworkable and “nice” but not real applicable. Specifically, the time it takes to implement it doesn’t work with the business climate we have. Sort of like saying – you can loose weight if you diet and exercise for a year – but you need to get into a dress/suite in 30 days. You’ll look for a different solution.
    I know we can start the process of building trust and engagement – but we don’t because the payoff is too far in the future.

  5. Paul – I didn’t miss your point, I took exception to it.
    Are comments only welcome from those who read your “stuff” and agree with it? Is that the point I missed?

  6. Paul Hebert says:

    Um… no… I think you misunderstood MY point.
    All comments are welcome… what I took from your comment is that you think AMP is something that can be implemented quickly and easily. I was just saying it can’t be. In other words we disagreed.
    How did you leap to the conclusion that only people who agree with me have a right to comment?

  7. Paul, think what you wish, I did not misunderstand anything. We disagree.
    Nor did I leap to a conclusion. I asked questions.
    The “All comments are welcome” part of your answer was entirely satisfactory to me … the other 94% of your reply, not so much.
    “Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” ― James A. Baldwin
    Once again, I recommend the “The Progress Principle” to those interested in making changes for the better – i.e. establishing positive gain feedback loops based on “small wins”. It was the #1 breakthrough idea in 2010 from Harvard Business Review. It’s based on long-term research findings. Author Teresa Amabile was recently named to the Thinkers50. Bob Sutton (“Good Boss, Bad Boss” and “The No Asshole Rule”) wrote: “The Progress Principle just might be the most important business book I’ve ever read.”

  8. Paul Hebert says:

    Obviously, I rubbed you the wrong way Richard and for that I apologize. Sometimes these non-verbal, non-visual means of communication don’t allow for nuance. I am hoping that is the case here.
    Have a happy and safe holiday season.

  9. Paul,
    Wishing you and yours the best as well.

  10. J fuller says:

    My understanding is that AMP works if compensation is competitive for the marketplace.

  11. Paul Hebert says:

    J. – AMP works when compensation is what the individual wants – nothing to do with the market – just that the individual isn’t worried about it.
    Even with that my thinking is that no company – or individual will wait long enough for AMP to actually have an effect before getting restless.

  12. invig says:

    Hi Paul,

    I’m reading around about this stuff and thank you for your contribution. I also have doubts about Mastery etc. in terms of basic (Maslow) needs have to be addressed first. Also, some interesting research on collaboration brain chemistry

    If you’re interested, I’ll be happy to send you a copy of my research thesis due in 2 months.

  13. Matt Parrish says:

    I don’t think either system is inherently the right way to go. For me, as I drive my sales team, I try to hybridize the approach. In his Ted talk, Pink allowed that smaller and more targeted incentives can drive motivation. It was the larger ones that broke it down, but those are important for the continued viability of the system. So I work AMP at the personal level and push the team to be thier best. I run contests that are short-term in nature and focus away from the company incentive drivers which feed the larger bonuses.

    So I see the bonus system as the Macro incentive, but to see to it that all members are digging in, I treat them at the micro level with AMP. It’s amazing how much well paid professional sales people will do for a 2 inch tall trophy if it includes demonstrating their mastery of the product and sales techniques in front of their peers.

    So to me the VPs run the incentive program and the supervisors run the AMP. The smaller group allows for quicker implementation. And for most employees the impression of the direct supervisor is the impression of the company.

    • Paul Hebert
      Paul Hebert says:

      That is a great way to combine the impact of both options. I plan on stealing it …. wonderful thoughts – thank you!

  14. Ruhi Desai says:

    Your post regarding work autonomy for the employees is quite informative and gives resourceful insights into the very essential workplace and profitability issues. However work autonomy is a useful tool for employees, which provides them the freedom to decide their course of action for their deliverables.
    Please visit our blogs and share your views on similar issues
    Thanks and Regards
    Ruhi Desai,
    Senior Business Development Manager @ Sapience Analytics Pvt Ltd

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