Time to reset our motivation

Cath Bishop urges us to rethink how we inspire and reward in the workplace.

Motivation has definitely stuttered through the pandemic for all of us. But motivation sagging is not a new phenomenon. Productivity and engagement levels have been dropping or flatlining across sectors for years. What are we getting wrong? Why do so many of our valiant attempts fail to lift our colleagues? Perhaps we are misunderstanding motivation.

The return to work post-pandemic offers a chance to reset our own individual and collective motivation. As part of that, it’s worth reconsidering the crucial difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. There is a vast gap in the performance that each stimulates. 

We live in a world where bonuses, rewards and accolades feel a natural part of motivation. But relying on external means to motivate ourselves and others creates only a shallow and temporary source of motivation.

The main thing going for this form of motivation is that it’s easy to measure and monitor – which often counts for a lot in modern organisational life. But we should recognise that this is an extremely limiting way to motivate others. 

Leaders and line managers need to start thinking about how they can instead tap into intrinsic motivation, which is a little more complex, but much more sustainable and stimulates far greater creativity and resilience.

Relying on external means to motivate ourselves and others creates only a shallow and temporary source of motivation

Daniel Pink set out the three keys of intrinsic motivation in Drive: purpose, autonomy, mastery. When these are present in an employee’s experience at work, then a rich well of motivation is unlocked. It is important that these elements play a central role in how we define success at work.

These concepts aren’t new, but our awareness of what they look like has surely changed over the last year. Let’s consider purpose. The pandemic has caused many of us, regardless of sector or seniority, to pause and re-evaluate what really matters in our personal and professional lives.

A crucial part of that re-evaluation has been to consider what contribution we are making to the world around us. The heroes of the summer of 2020 weren’t the expected Lycra-clad newly crowned Olympic champions or European footballing stars.

They were people dressed in loose-fitting tunics and trousers, with layers of protective clothing. Many of us have reflected on what brings meaning to our own personal and professional lives.

Many of us are bringing a sharper awareness and interest in the purpose of the organisations we work for. Research has been building for the last two decades showing that purpose-led businesses outperform their peers.


Experiences of the last year and the expectations of the new generation entering the workplace should ensure that purpose can’t be traduced into an empty mission statement. Employees want to connect their daily work to a wider purpose, and leaders should seize this opportunity to help them make that connection – that will bring far greater sustainable motivation than any targets or incentives ever could.

Our understanding of autonomy has also shifted over the last year. Experiencing an unprecedented lockdown took away freedoms we had all taken for granted. It’s hard to find anyone who has found that easy. Companies have also had to make the leap to seeing their entire workforce working from home.

Despite traditional concerns over productivity, the reality has been different. Often, problems have come from overwork and burnout, which sends an important message to organisational leaders who have for years not trusted their employees to work from home.

As we have had many ‘normal’ freedoms curtailed, it has become more important to realise what freedoms remain to us – freedom to go for a walk and appreciate our local natural environment, freedom to connect through tech with others (where we have access to tech) and freedom to organise our work and home lives to suit ourselves (although often, this has not felt easy.)

Many of us continue to adjust and search for the right work/life balance when distinctions between home and work life have become blurred. Leaders could do more to support employees to experiment and work out the right work/life balance – again, the rewards in terms of sustained motivation would be considerable.

Finally, we have all ended up in learning mode like never before over the last year. Learning to connect over Zoom, learning to manage teams remotely, learning to juggle home-schooling and work. Those who were lucky enough to have additional time and space even took up additional learning, whether it was baking, yoga or learning a new language.

For most of us, we didn’t need to go looking for new things to learn, our whole world was turned upside down and we needed to learn a new way of working as quickly as possible. 

The act of learning is deeply motivating. We don’t stop learning from the moment we are born unless we are prevented from it. A mastery mindset understands that the more we learn, the more there is to learn. It is important that our workplaces are full of constant opportunities to learn, through feedback, reflection, challenge and curiosity.

Elite athletes focus on developing an improver’s mindset, aware that their best chances of winning are to be world-class at improving. They understand that winning is in the future and dependent on external uncontrollable factors – competitors, referees, weather, injuries, umpires.

But improving is something that is within their control; optimising improvements means optimising chances of winning. Line managers would do well to ensure that a constant learning mindset is central to their picture of work success. Learning is the engine for performance, and anyone who neglects to keep the engine well-fuelled, will find that performance is lacking.

The true ingredients of deep, sustainable motivation haven’t changed but have long been undervalued, overlooked and misunderstood.

The new context in which we are all contemplating our work lives gives us an opportunity, even amidst ongoing uncertainty and unpredictability, to achieve far greater motivation, so long as we are open to prioritising the role of purpose, autonomy and mastery in our definition of success in the workplace. 


About the author

Dr Cath Bishop is an Olympian, former diplomat, business coach and author of The Long Win: the search for a better way to succeed. Find out more at www.cathbishop.com


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