A couple of years ago, I came across a remarkable presentation by author Daniel Pink, and featured it in my blog post, “So You Think You Understand How To Motivate People!” It’s always been a popular post (and a great example of animation as a way to present ideas.)  I recently got around to reading the book that inspired the presentation – Drive, by Daniel H. Pink.  I’ve also just read the wonderful, To Sell Is Human by the same author, so I’m clearly “in the pink” as they say, and very appreciative of his research, writing skills, and his ability to constantly challenge the conventional wisdom, with insight and clarity.

Why Are Motivation and Engagement Important to IT Organizations?

Clearly, this is a trick question – motivation and engagement are important to any organization (or endeavor) but I have worked with quite a few consulting clients over the last few years where engagement was low – it both felt low as I worked with various teams and observed behaviors, and it was measured as low in annual engagement surveys, such as those by Gallup and Towers Watson.  Often, the IT organization scored lower on engagement than any other part of the business – sorry, readers – please don’t blame the messenger!

Why is IT Organizational Engagement Low?

I’m not certain about the reasons, but I have some hypotheses based on my observations and conversations with many IT staff:

  • In tough times (yes, like we’ve had the last few years!) IT organizations take it on the chin!  They are asked to participate in cost cutting, and they do – often again and again!  I often hear comments such as, “I’m doing the work of three people – and I never feel as though I can catch up and do a good job!” These rounds of cost cutting take their toll on morale and negatively impact engagement.
  • Often the cuts impact things that are important to IT staff – education and training, for example, or office ‘socials’ where people get to network and know each other.  Even ‘perks’ that used to be taken for granted, such as free coffee and sodas, or subsidized cafeterias have been eliminated.
  • I’ve noted before that IT professionals tend to abhor ambiguity – after all, they have to reduce business problems to zeros and ones!  And yet, in times of organizational change and transition – which have become the new normal for many IT shops – ambiguity is high, leading to frustration and low engagement.
  • The nature of IT is that it is noticed most when things go wrong – less so when they go right!  I’ve observed before that the half-life of an IT snafu is 12 years, whereas the half-life of an IT success story is 12 minutes!  It’s tough to stay motivated when you are constantly defending yourself!
  • For IT to deliver great results requires that many moving parts and processes across a complex environment work together seamlessly and harmoniously.  It’s tough in such an environment to create the kind of motivation-inducing autonomy Dan Pink writes about.
  • Finally, outsourcing has created both fear of job stability, and, for some IT professionals at least, degraded the job to that of a commodity.  I don’t personally think of outsourcing as wrong or misguided, but sometimes it is handled and introduced to the IT organization in a crude and clumsy way – for example, as a threat, “You’d better knuckle down or your job will be outsourced!”

What Does Research Tell Us About Motivating Knowledge Workers?

Knowledge workers are most motivated by intrinsic rather than extrinsic factors.  This explains phenomena such as the open source movement, and, as Pink points out, the remarkable and almost unpredictable success of Wikipedia – created by volunteers over Microsoft Encarta – a product of a gigantic company with a large budget and a massive team of experts.  Pink goes on to define three elements of what he calls “Type I” motivation – fueled by intrinsic desires:


One of the three basic human needs, what motivation researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan describe this way:

Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice.”

It can include autonomy over task, over time, over team and over technique.  I’ve posted before about the concepts of standardizing process, deliverables or skills, and how IT organizations tend to get these confused, or try to standardize everything though processes.  Autonomy has been all but stamped out in many IT shops!


Which reminds me of Robert Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I’ve posted at length about as one of the most influential books I’ve ever read.  Given sufficient engagement in an activity, rather than being forced into that activity by compliance, individuals will generally seek personal fulfillment by striving to achieve mastery.  Even though they may never get there, they find enormous personal satisfaction in the journey towards mastery – spending significant chunks of time in what some call “flow.”  My colleague at the new Business Relationship Management Institute, Dr. Aleksandr Zhuk, pointed me to this quote from Matthew E. May‘s The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change.  Shibumi is a Japanese word that better captures the concept of flow:

Moments of utter clarity. We feel wide awake and connected and balanced: everything makes sense, we know exactly who we are, what we want, and why we’re here. In that moment, be it one blink or a thousand, our effectiveness is maximal. And yet our actions seem minimal, effortless even, and the experience is consummately satisfying.”

How many IT jobs are designed to encourage Shibumi?  Many of my clients create an environment where constant context shifting takes place, as people are shuffled from design to maintenance to break-fix and so on.  Not much Shibumi takes place under such circumstances!


Purpose provides the energy for living.  Think about the things you do outside work – and why you do them.  Coaching kids soccer.  Skiing.  Learning a musical instrument.  Volunteering for a charitable organization.  All these things have a purpose – and it’s not wealth creation.  Of course, there’s an element of wealth creation in our work, but for most of us, the need to make a living wage was satisfied early in our career.  So what is the real purpose in our work?  I remember some years back in a coaching session with a group of IT leaders from separate organizations discussing the fundamental mission of our work places.  Most of the group members were confounded by the discussion – they did not know what I was trying to uncover.  Except for one of them, who watched the others struggle with a slight grin on his face.  Eventually, this IT leader from a global pharmaceutical company said, “We save lives by inventing drugs that cure deadly diseases!  That’s why we do what we do.”

Why are you and your IT staff coming to work every day?  Is the purpose really motivating mastery?  And do you have the autonomy to engage in your work?  What could you do to improve motivation and engagement?  As a starting point, you might read some of Dan Pink’s “Drive.”

Graphic courtesy of Success Blog


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