Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose: Motivating Employees without Money

As a communication coach, I often work with people who lack motivation in their current job and they seek the people skills to make and effective career change. This is how I’ve learned there are a lot of de-motivated employees out there and a lot of companies which pay a huge cost for this.

Motivation and Money

We are typically taught to believe that money is the perfect motivator, to which all people react very well, every time. If you want an employee to work harder and to be more productive, give them more money for their good work.

Well, reality is not that simple. As modern research in psychology, sociology and economics clearly points out, money can only motivate employees up to a certain point. Beyond that point, we need to consider motivating employees without money, using other incentives.

This doesn’t mean that you can pay an employee a crappy salary and still have them motivated. Some employers need to understand this as well: a decent salary is a hygiene factor.

However, once an employee has a good salary, you often won’t be able to motivate them further with more money. This applies especially in complex, non-linear jobs.

I think Daniel Pink, the author of the book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” puts it nicely in this video, when he says (4:55): “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table”. After you do that as an employer, the next step is mastering motivating employees without money.

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose: The 3 Keys

There are 3 essential non-financial incentives which modern research consistently points out to work best. Daniel Pink also talks a lot about them.

  1. Autonomy. People want the freedom to work how they like, to set their own rules and conditions. They have the need to direct their own lives and their own work. This is why micro-managing employees is a bad idea.
  2. Mastery. People want to improve their skills, they want to continuously learn and get better at what they do. I’ve seen this many times as a coach: when a person feels they’re no loner growing, it’s the beginning of the end for their present job.
  3. Purpose. People want to contribute to something bigger than themselves. They want to feel their life/ work is meaningful and it serves a higher purpose, aligned with their highest values.

When employees have autonomy, mastery and purpose, extraordinary things happen, both for them and the organization. They are happy with their jobs, they are engaged and they deliver peak performance.

Going Beyond Talk

Autonomy, mastery, purpose – these are some shinny words. In practice, creating a work environment around these three non-financial motivators is not easy. It takes creativity, commitment and overcoming all sorts of obstacles.

I will often have a talk with a manager about people skills and using these motivators with their team, and I will hear an objection such as: “I would have to restructure the department to create purpose for my team. I can’t do that! That’s the HR’s job.”

No, it’s the manager’s job! I firmly believe that a good manager goes the extra mile to motivate their team, to help create autonomy, mastery, purpose. If the HR is in charge of restructuring a department, go talk to the HR and do all that you can to get their aid in motivating employees without money.

Many managers need to realize the real degree of influence they can achieve in a company, if they have the confidence, the people skills and the drive to really support their team. In my view, that’s what being a manger is all about.

Image courtesy of cszar


  1. I love Daniel Pinks work, I’ve been familiar with it for sometime and he is also a regular blogger. I think the power of autonomy is absolutely second to none…give someone a tast and let them creatively explore their own path to do it makes for an intoxicating product. Great post Eduard! 😉

  2. I’m with you 100% on the fact that motivating people and keeping them motivated is a shared managers responsibility. In almost all cases they (should) know people better than HR.

  3. I agree with you – money is a great motivator, but only after a certain amount. I find I get motivated when I have some control over my work, and when I feel I’m part of something “larger” than just earning a living. I also find when I need to prove myself to others I get highly motivated.

    • Psychology points this out about motivation and money very clearly for over a decade. Sadly, many people have no clue what really motivates them.

  4. Hi Eduard,

    When i started my blog, i did not want to earn money at all.

    But since my blog grows, i have earned some money from it, and i get addicted LOL.

    Now money is the motivator of why i blog too.

    Not sure whether it is the first motivator or second or..

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts above!

    • Interesting – money coming second as the motivator. I think it’s best to start doing something because you enjoy it more than anything else. However, the earning potential of what you do is to be taken into consideration if you want to make a living out of it. This is how I thought about my own blog.

  5. Money always motivates in the beginning. As a manager, how do you know when you’ve reached that point where the issue of money is off the table?

    Every employee’s needs are different, and the good ones are more than willing to show there worth before expecting a big pay bump.

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