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  • Writer's pictureDan Manning

4 Ways to Build for Success with Intrinsic Motivation

A metaphor for the power of intrinsic motivation and steady, consistent work stands about 30 miles south of Knoxville in Greenback, Tennessee. Junior Banks, an energetic, white-haired man now in his 70’s, has been building it brick-by-brick for nearly 27 years. Of course, he doesn’t see it as a metaphor. To Mr. Banks, the Fortress of Faith is a creation inspired by the Almighty. 

I recently visited the Fortress as a diversion on a roadtrip from Alabama to Virginia. I’ll admit, the empty castle, pet cemetery, bizarre figures, and torture chamber cast an eerie pall over what is intended to be a monument to the miraculous possibilities of God. While perusing the bulletin boards of snapshots taken inside the castle over the years and the hand-scrawled messages of wisdom and science on the walls, I became increasingly unnerved by the consistent scrape, scrape, scraping going on just outside.

Steeling myself for whatever fate might await me in the hills of Tennessee, I rounded the corner to find Junior himself mixing a small batch of concrete to set the final ‘S’ in Jesus. He answered my tentative “hello” with a welcoming “hi, friend.” Our conversation quickly transitioned to a 30 minute guided tour. Junior added musical accompaniment from a scratchy AM station on a clock radio and flipped a switch to illuminate a few of the rooms where letters from professors and Congressmen are displayed near disembodied heads of mannequins staring through a barred window into the courtyard of the fortress.

Since Junior was 43, Fortress construction has been his single-minded goal. He began the project as a monument to his own ego, but slowly he came to believe God was telling him what to do and how to do it. With walls standing over 5 meters tall, about 20 rooms, a two-story turret, the beginnings of a maze in the courtyard, a throne room, and electricity, the Fortress is impressive—and Junior will never finish it.


For a man of meager means, it is remarkable he was able to find the sheer volume of material needed for the structure. Nearby demolition of buildings during an expansion of the state highway provided the bulk of the materials. Neighbors and tourists provided most of the rest, including the cement, left as a sort of offering at the entrance to the structure. There have been other offerings as well…tombstones from cemeteries discovered on private lands, dearly departed pets for burial in the courtyard, shells, bottles, and figurines are all carefully incorporated into the structure.

Is the Fortress creative? It certainly meets two of Harvard professor and leading creativity researcher Teresa Amabile’s three criteria. First, it has been produced, that is, it’s not an element of Junior’s imagination. Second, it is novel. He did not imitate someone else’s Fortress made from assorted construction detritus, and you will not find another one like it anywhere. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether it meets the third criteria…appropriate for the task. In some versions of Junior’s story, the Fortress is to be a place to reveal proof of the Almighty and to serve as a site for the Second Coming. Let’s just say the jury is still out on this one, but Junior is convinced.

In order for a person to be creative, Teresa Amabile says three components must be present. First, you need expertise. Check--Junior had been building homes from found materials for a few years before he started this project. Second, a person needs certain creativity skills. Check—Everywhere you look, you see another example of Junior’s impressive divergent and convergent thinking capabilities. Third, and most importantly, a person needs intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the secret weapon that not only motivates people to be creative but provides the resilience to continue after inevitable failures. 

Junior Banks isn’t building the Fortress to make money, to be recognized as an artist or craftsman, or even to avoid God’s punishment if he were not to show up everyday to add something to the creation. In our conversation, it was clear his motivation was internal. Despite his heart problems, age, and knees made sore from decades of hard work, Junior beamed as he pointed out (barely recognizable to me) miraculous figures that appeared in the cement coating of the structure. As our visit concluded, he returned to mix his concrete and continue his work just as I am sure he will do as long as he is physically able.

This is what gives intrinsic motivation its power. When a person is intrinsically motivated, doing the work ignites, rather than quells, the appetite. Mr. Banks will not be satisfied with the Fortress and move on to something else when he presses down the last ‘S’ in Jesus. Instead, he will be even more eager to start, or continue with, another project around the Fortress.

Neuroscientists and behavioral researchers have demonstrated the implications of intrinsic motivation in animals ranging from snail-like sea creatures, to mice, to monkeys, to humans.

Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, provides an accessible account of the strength of intrinsic motivators and the unexpectedly negative impact of extrinsic rewards. Researchers in the 1950’s were surprised when monkeys began to solve puzzles without the promise or expectation of food rewards. In other studies, monkeys would stuff their cheeks with food before starting research tasks where correct performance would be rewarded with raisins, thus ensuring they ate a reward regardless of their performance. Contrary to the common knowledge of the time, researchers discovered these monkeys were motivated to satisfy their curiosity and expand their knowledge even in the absence of extrinsic rewards.

The truth is, there are three basic motivating drives universal across man and beast.

1. First Drive: Survival

2. Second Drive: Reward seeking/Punishment avoiding

3. Third Drive: Doing something just for the sake of doing it, satisfying curiosity, gaining knowledge, etc.

Traditional management practices and bonus structures are built on the belief that offering rewards increases performance, but the science shows as tasks become more complex and rely more on creativity, critical thinking, and complex problem solving than on rote compliance with accepted procedures, the opposite is true.

Researchers have demonstrated this finding in study after study. The typical research protocol goes something like this:

1. Divide participants into 2 groups

2. Tell one group they will be rewarded upon meeting a certain level of performance

3. Don’t say anything about rewards to the other group

As long as the participants find the task to be interesting, the results are consistent:

1. Those offered rewards do not perform as well as those who were not.

2. Despite being initially as interested in the task as those who were not rewarded, brain imagery shows that after the reward period is over, the task is less interesting to those who receive rewards, and they choose to perform it less in their "free-choice" time.

3. When a group comes to expect rewards for performance, and the rewards are subsequently removed, performance decreases.

Why? What is happening in our brains?

Estonian-born neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp studied the emotional systems at work in human and animal brains. One of the systems he identified was the SEEKING system. (He wasn’t shouting. He used all capital letters to show this work had a special meaning in his scientific vocabulary.) In his explanation, “when fully aroused, SEEKING fills the mind with interest and motivates organisms to effortlessly search for the things they need, crave, and desire.”

From an evolutionary standpoint, this system is vitally important. When the brain of a wolf, for example, recognizes its energy levels are getting low, it sparks the SEEKING system to arouse interest (and enthusiasm) in finding something to eat. This system begins increasing brain chemicals, especially dopamine, as it starts its search. The brain has developed pathways that grow increasingly sensitive as the possibility of a reward, in this case food, nears. When the wolf sees his chance to capture prey, his brain is awash in dopamine.

As he bites into the prey, even before his energy stores are actually renewed, his brain dumps the level of chemicals in the brain. It is this rapid decrease in chemicals, that brings the feeling of pleasure.

It is no coincidence virtually every beer commercial includes the whooshing sound of a can or bottle being cracked open. That sound has become associated in millions of brains with the pleasurable dump of chemicals accompanying the capture of modern man’s favorite prey…a cold beer.

There are some side effects to this pleasurable change in brain chemistry. When the SEEKING system is no longer driving us, our enthusiasm plummets, as does our interest in the search itself. 

So, what does this have to do with leading creative teams or strategy making?

When we attempt to motivate a team with rewards for performance, two things happen:

1. People (and monkeys) become fixated on the reward. Our thinking shifts from open-minded creativity to a singular focus on goal attainment. This was an effective motivator in assembly line days, but it is the opposite of what we need in the 4th Industrial Revolution.

2. When we receive the reward, our brain gives us the sensation of pleasure as it dumps the “feel good” chemicals. We cheer, pump our fists, crack open a metaphorical cold one…and our SEEKING system shuts down.

If, however, you link your strategy to an internal motivation, the SEEKING system is never satisfied. As long as a person has the luxury of not having their survival threatened or having to work to avoid punishments, their intrinsic motivation will continue to drive them to seek more of what Daniel Pink and Self-Determination Theorists call the three innate psychological needs—mastery, autonomy, and human connection.

When I work with clients to identify the things they value, the non-negotiable principles they will abide by even if it delays accomplishment of their “business goals,” the answers are almost always related to these three factors. We even see it in the Wright Brothers example:

1. Mastery: Patiently acquire skill while exercising smart risk-taking

2. Autonomy: Keep the bicycle shop functioning to allow enough income to pursue flight

3. Human Connection: Collaborate with other researchers to solve the problem

Short of the Second Coming, Junior Banks is never going to get the dump of dopamine that tells him his work on the Fortress is finished. Rarely do you hear of an artist saying they are finished being an artist, or a chef no longer thinking about combining food flavors, or an entrepreneur no longer noticing a good business idea. In fact, what we see more and more are people who begin to teach others, to invest in “like-hearted” businesses, or who continuing pursuing their craft until their last breath. 

No rewards we can offer are stronger than the primal SEEKING instinct, so rather than offering up another gift card to whoever solves your next big challenge, try one of these intrinsic motivation hacks:

 1. Look for opportunities to encourage “volunteerism” I didn’t recognize it at the time, but my proudest problem solving moments in my military career came when I led teams comprised only of people who chose to be on the team. I get it…the term “volunteer” only goes so far when you are restricted to a base in Kabul, but simply giving folks the real choice to not be a part of the team taps into the innate need for autonomy. Japanese researchers found that participants who were allowed to choose their game piece performed better in a simple game than those who were forced to take whatever the computer assigned them. Giving people choices in how they work, create, and accomplish interesting tasks leads them to be more creative and more productive.

2. Give as many team members as possible a voice in strategy As I have written before, having a voice, not necessarily a vote, in strategy-making subtly shifts from a compliance-based mindset to a covenant-based one. Even if a person’s input does not make it into the final version of the strategy, being heard triggers brain chemicals related to connectedness as well as autonomy. When the path from today’s culture to “business goals” is shaped by values that are actively practiced, the journey, rather than the destination, becomes the motivator.

3. Work on the margins of manageability A tuned-in leader can not only align teammates to tasks most likely to be of interest to them, but she can also look for tasks at the edges of her teammates’ current capabilities. A too-easy task isn’t interesting, so the SEEKING system and intrinsic motivation are not triggered. I’ve never met someone intrinsically motivated to complete a TPS report. When a task is too difficult, it is not the SEEKING system that is triggered, but the RAGE or PANIC system instead. When these systems take hold, we are not generating our best ideas. Understanding a teammate’s strengths and weaknesses allows a leader to strike the right balance.

4. Be shrewd about rewards you do give Completing a project, closing a deal, or just thanking the team for consistent effort can be an important part of building the connectedness we need. Science tells us the rewards that most undermine performance are cash benefits dependent on performance. “I will give $50 to the best idea for landing the Jones account.” If you can’t stop yourself from giving rewards…make them a surprise after the work is complete, make them something other than cash (time off, a gift certificate to a massage, the chance to go learn something new), and give it in a way that increases connection (ie. not via email).

We may not aspire to build a fortress, but each of us (and every person on your team) is intrinsically motivated to do something. Even if their current job isn't a passion, great leaders find ways to connect daily work to the greater mission by linking workers to the customers they serve, allowing space for autonomy, or by giving folks a voice. The end result can be greater than an impressive, but slightly frightening, fortress in the hills of Tennessee.

Dan Manning is the Founder of Firepower Concepts, LLC, a firm teaching applied creativity to help businesses and non-profits solve their toughest problems and design useful strategies. Combining academic study with techniques refined over a career as a fighter pilot and warrior-diplomat, Dan unleashes the transforming power of creative thinking to do what could not be done before.

* Special thanks to Mr. Junior Banks...I'll be back, and I will bring a bag of cement with me next time.

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