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Doug Maarschalk on Self-Determination Theory and Creating Motivational Culture

In this podcast recorded at the Agile Christchurch conference, Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Doug Maarschalk about how self-determination theory plays out in the workplavce and how to nurture motivation in individuals and teams.

Key Takeaways

  • Teams are complex systems, more akin to an ecosystem than a machine and there is no simple formula for motivation
  • Self-determination theory says that people are born with psychological needs for autonomy, mastery and purpose
  • There are techniques to help individuals and teams build more ownership of outcomes through increasing these three motivational drivers
  • Use small experiments and rapid feedback to learn what works for teams and individuals, be comfortable to change approaches based on learning 
  • While it is easy to think about the three motivational drives separately, for real intrinsic motivation we need to address them all together


00:21 Introductions

00:21 Shane Hastie: G'day folks, this is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm at Agile Christchurch in sunny Christchurch, New Zealand. I'm sitting down with Doug Maarschalk. Doug, welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.

00:34 Doug Maarschalk: Thanks Shane. Thanks for inviting me. I'm keen to see where we get to in the next little while.

00:38 Shane Hastie: So, you and I know each other, but I suspect most of our audience haven't come across you and your work before. So could you give us the one minute who's Doug, and why Doug?

00:47 Doug Maarschalk: Why Doug is probably up to my parents. Who's Doug is really, based in Christchurch, New Zealand. I work with leaders and teams all over the country, around, best way to describe it, would be a couple of mindsets. One would be the mindset of how we approach engagement and motivation in groups of people and in individuals. The other would be mindsets, ways of thinking around how we think about our context in order to approach it in the most appropriate way. So I'm quite interested in how those two intersect. So, motivation and the way people work together being fundamentally a complex challenge or a complex system, if you like. And so therefore, how do we approach that in a way that isn't a one, two, three formula, but a series of small experiments, little things that we try to make sense of our particular team and our particular context?

01:36 Shane Hastie: You say teams as complex environments, this is the Engineering Culture podcast, surely, we can treat people like we treat process and engineering and stuff, or maybe not.

01:49 Teams as Complex Systems

01:49 Doug Maarschalk: Maybe not. I think one way to think about that is a scale of predictable to unpredictable. Actually, a lot of the stuff that we might do in engineering, whether that's software engineering or building bridges, would be a fairly linear process, there's a lot of knowns. And for the things that we don't know, we know that someone else out there who's an expert can come in and tell us what to do. And with enough analysis, we can figure it out. Not to say there isn't some level of complexity in that, but often there is a process to follow, and we can figure that out. With humans, there's a huge amount of unknowns. Why is it that one week, as a team, we get together, we have a fairly productive meeting, and the next week under very similar conditions, it's very unproductive?

02:29 Doug Maarschalk: Because there's a lot below the surface, there's a lot going on, a lot of dynamics, if you like, where we actually can't really see what's going on. And so while there might be some likelihood, based on the way we approach things, there might be some likelihood of outcome, it's never guaranteed, and so it's never fully predictable. I like to think of it as rather than your machine that you're engineering, it's more of a forest or an ecosystem. And thinking this thing is alive, therefore it's moving, therefore there's a lot we can't necessarily see under the surface. There's a lot we can see, but the things that we do, we don't know exactly how they're going to play out. They could have disproportionate outcomes. So, we might say something really small and really kind to someone, and that completely changes the whole environment and the team. Or the inverse might be true, a small comment could break down months of good rapport. And so it's very important to think of it as actually quite different to a ordered linear well-known process.

03:29 Shane Hastie: So, what are some of the things that we need to take into account? What does that ecosystem consist of? And how do we, as team leads, as just people working in these teams, how do we nurture that ecosystem?

03:41 Introducing self-determination theory 

03:41 Doug Maarschalk: So this is we think the difference between a insightful starting point, or a rule of thumb, and a prescription or a formula is useful. So in the forest, in the ecosystem, we start small and we evolve forward. And so the question I've often had is, well, what's a great starting point? And that's where I borrow from self-determination theory. So, listeners may be familiar with that from Daniel Pink's book Drive, that he wrote in 2009. And we introduce this as this idea that people are born with these psychological needs, and those needs are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Some of that's not language we use every day, or we might use it and not really have taken the time to go deeper.

04:12 Doug Maarschalk: Autonomy is really around choice, and people having the feeling, the need, it's this feeling that the things that I'm doing are of my own volition, I'm deciding to do these things. And in an organizational context, that autonomy has to be supported. I'll go into that in a second. But in an organizational context, it's not independence. So, independence is this thing where there's nothing external influencing me. Whereas autonomy is within all the things influencing me, I still feel like I have a choice. And so, a lot of what we do in teams and that, is uncover where are we lacking choice? Or given our constraints, where could we improve the level of choice around the kind of work we do, when we do it, how we do it, et cetera?

05:03 Doug Maarschalk: And then mastery builds on our need for competence. And competence is this desire to feel effective at what we do. So knowing that when I go into a certain situation, I'll be effective at doing that. And that has a few parts to it. So mastery is getting better and better with that level of effectiveness, and seeing that sense of progress, having meaningful progress.

05:22 Doug Maarschalk: The other side of that is there might be things within our environment that hinder our effectiveness. Those might be friction points, or impediments if you like. And so it's quite important in a team environment to look at what are the things that are stopping people from feeling effective? And actually, those could be a bit of a flag as to a starting point.

05:42 Doug Maarschalk: And then the purpose is building on our need for relatedness. So relatedness is really around caring for each other, feeling cared for. It's kind of like a sense of belonging. So it's connecting to each other, but the purpose goes beyond that, where it's connecting to something outside of ourselves. And so we see organizations that have a very clear line-of-sight between what individuals are doing on a day-to-day, their contribution, and that impact that it has in the world, that's a powerful motivator for people. And so the two quick takeaways there would be if you and your team are visualizing progress, and where people are effective and doing well, and visualizing the contribution that individuals are making, that's where I think certain tools out there around visualization can be very useful for teams.

06:28 Shane Hastie: Doesn't that go counter to what we're looking for today and that it's the team that's responsible for the outcome, and you're talking about the individual contribution here?

06:37 Ideas for exploring motivation in teams  

06:37 Doug Maarschalk I think going back to my earlier point was, once again, starting as a rule of thumb. And where I've seen this to be quite useful, is we get the group together and say, "Okay. Everyone, in the last three months, where have you or have you not experienced the meeting of your needs for autonomy, mastery and purpose?" From there, we start to see themes that are common amongst the individuals. So this one particular team might not have a great sense of purpose, and that's showing up as a bunch of people doing things differently, and they aren't on the same trajectory. So I think motivation is totally at a individual level. But when we talk about, as a group together, the kind of things that are either growing that sense of all of our motivation, and those things that are inhibiting it, that's where we can start to make progress in terms of the team outcomes.

07:27 Doug Maarschalk: Another interesting thing around that, that I've learned is autonomy is the sense of having choice. So even if you come and tell me that you need me to do something, if that particular activity is aligned with my values and what I believe to be the right thing to do, I'm still acting out of a sense of autonomy. I'm still feeling like it's aligned with my choices. And that's where I think autonomy can be well supported by a greater sense of purpose, and the development of mastery in the things that we're trying to achieve.

07:57 Shane Hastie: So how do we do this? If I'm, again, a member of a team or a leader of a team, what are some practical things that I can do for myself and with the people around me, that just create this better ecosystem?

08:11 Practical advice for team leaders and team members

08:11 Doug Maarschalk: I often will split this into kind of the individual and then the team area. So the individual is really at that conversational level. And there's this interesting work by a lady called Susan Fowler, where she talks about why motivating people doesn't work and what does. And the interesting point she says there is we can have these kinds of conversations with folks, where we ask them the right kind of questions that can shift their motivational outlook towards a particular challenge that they're facing. So we've all been in situations where we don't want to do something, or we feel controlled into doing something. And the thing going to do is not out of a feeling of intrinsic motivation, this internal drive, it's more of an external controlled thing. And something that we can do there, is simple questions based around these three needs that every human has and expresses differently, but every human has these, is to ask questions, for example, purpose related to this, why do we care about this? Why does this work matter? Who could I connect with through this particular challenge in terms of mastery, what could we learn here? How could I demonstrate my effectiveness in this? And autonomy, what choices do I have in this particular situation around how I organize my work, and in some cases, whether I do it or not?

09:28 Doug Maarschalk: So often we might think, "I have to do this," and we've actually totally cancelled out the choice of choosing not to do it, which might have a lot of consequences. So that's at that individual conversational level. So when I talk to people in a coaching function is sort of getting them into a place where they're thinking about those kinds of questions, where they're effectively taking the horse to water. And they're still doesn't mean that that person will be motivated from that, but it's giving them the opportunity to shift their mindset. This is also something I do for myself. So if I'm feeling imposed upon or I have to do something, I might just go through those things and think, "Okay. Where's my opportunity to show I care? Why does this matter? Learn, have choices." So that's at the individual level.

10:11 Doug Maarschalk: At the team level, similar to what we talked about before, it's identifying... Just having a simple conversation, once people have a general understanding of what these needs are, having a simple conversation around, where has this shown up, and what are the themes? And we walk away from that, I'll get onto how we approach that, but we walk away from that, not necessarily saying, "Oh, we need to work on purpose," or, "We need to work on autonomy." It's more, "We need to work on this particular challenge, but we now have a much deeper understanding of why that's a problem."

10:40 Experiments to help understand the terrain  

10:40 Doug Maarschalk: A lot of the other work that I do is a basic experimental approach to things. So remember if we're talking about being in the forest, being a conservationist, it's sort of saying, "Okay. Well, I'm not going to weed spray the whole thing, especially if it's a new forest. I need to understand the terrain. And so what I'm going to do is try some things in a really small way." So we might have this discussion and decide that actually people are lacking choices around the way they carry out their work. And so instead of doing a big overhaul or doing three months of planning to figure out the best way to do it, we might just try a few small things over a two-week period.

11:17 Doug Maarschalk: The interesting thing here, is we're not necessarily always trying to prove exactly what works. What we're trying to do is understand more about where we are right now and the trajectory we can go in. And so, we might try a few activities around building relationships with stakeholders, for example, or building more flexibility in the work environment. And then we monitor it closely, and we look for the signs of success, and we look for the signs of failure. And when we see the signs of success, we amplify that. So we say, "How can we best build on that?" And even at the beginning, where we're mapping out our action, we might even come up with those signs of success then, and what the potential amplifications could be. But the other bit that makes us safe is we're looking for the signs of failure. And so if we end up with a situation where we're starting to see those signs, we've got an exit strategy.

12:08 Doug Maarschalk: So we think, if everyone thought it was a good idea to hug each other on a Monday morning, because that would build some sort of relational community in the team. And they tried that one week and it went badly, cue the awkwardness, how would we exit from that? So you might just shut it down, don't do that again. But through just trying this little thing, we've understood more about how our team is better engaged. And when we do the exercise round, where have these things shown up? So where has my sense of purpose been met? Where has my sense of mastery and autonomy been met? We can actually say in our first experiments, "Well, how do we get more of those stories? And how do we get more things that build on that?" And so we build from our present state, not try and sort of fix some point out in the future, and have a five-step process to get there.

12:52 Shane Hastie: So there's a lot of learning and experimenting going on here. Where do I learn to learn?

12:41 Look at the motivational factors together rather than as independent drivers

12:41 Doug Maarschalk: So what I've done is, my entry point into all of this around the motivational side was Dan Pink's book Drive. And he's very clear on who his sources are. He's drawn from the work of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, who have come up, in the '70s, with the self-determination theory, and they're still producing work in that space. And so I've gone and looked at that, and also looked at some of the articles online that have been produced around that. That's a good knowledge piece. What I found particularly interesting is to actually put it to practice. And that experimental process is such a helpful way to do that, because I realized where the edges of my knowledge are. For example, something that I've really learned is that it's really easy to think about the three motivational drives separately, whereas actually for real intrinsic motivation, we need to think about them all together.

13:48 Doug Maarschalk: So when I start to think about challenges in a team, often it'll emerge as someone who doesn't have choices. But the reality is because there isn't a clear why, or there isn't a clear purpose, or they don't have the necessary skills to complete the task, that's actually the issue that's confining their choices. And so instead of going out and doing a whole bunch on autonomy, we actually start to say, "Okay. Well, how can we clarify the why? Or get them on a path where they'll have enough mastery to support that level of choice that they want?" And you see it inversely, where people are given too much autonomy. And that can be an equally stressful place, where, I've got all the time in the world, I've got all the resources I need to do work, but actually what's the most important work now? Or I don't have the relational skill to connect with the right stakeholder to be able to carry out this work on my own. And so it's really fascinating to see how the three work together to create better ways of moving forward from an engagement perspective.

14:48 Shane Hastie: So what about in terms of jelling in a team, getting a team to work together effectively in this context?

14:56 An exercise for collaboratively identifying team purpose 

14:56 Doug Maarschalk: I think there's a lot of work out there around that, so I'm not going to canvas the whole landscape. And I'm sure you've had previous people that have done really well on that. But I guess I'm going to come from my corner and say, one exercise that I've done with teams often, is we started at a purpose perspective. So I can talk it through in case anyone wants to try it on their team. We start by saying, "Okay. Well, everyone just write out a paragraph, bullet points, whatever comes to mind, just write out what is your purpose at work?" If we need further explanation there, it's kind of like, if I've had a day where I felt like a really contributed well, what happened? And if we think of purpose as serving something outside of myself, what is that something? Is it my customer? And then therefore, in what way do I want to serve them? Is it my colleagues? In what way do I want to serve them?

15:39 Doug Maarschalk: And so just really fleshing out why are we doing what we're doing, why do we come to work in the morning? All that kind of stuff.

15:29 Shane Hastie: So that's individually write that?

15:47 Doug Maarschalk: Yeah. And then say to them, can I write that down in a very short sentence? It could be six words, but then obviously everyone starts complaining about the word count. So just in a very short sentence, write it down. And what that forces them to do is really distil it into why they're there. And then a bonus round is to add in front of that sentence. So for me, it might be guiding people to sustained high-performance. And I would actually do this exercise every so often, because as your context shifts, you might want to adjust what your purpose for that short-term period is. Anyway, so that would be my guiding people to sustained high-performance.

16:12 Doug Maarschalk: And then how do we name ourselves is really interesting. And so am I just a role title? Insert role title here. Or I am someone who guides people to sustain high-performance. So what we get the people to do is write out their purpose statement, and then actually add a, "I am someone who..." to the front of it. It's sort of a naming mechanism if you like. And then we ask people, "How does that feel?" But when people share that with each other, you get this kind of interesting vibe in the room around, "Oh, so that guy there who I don't know that well, actually really cares about the same sort of stuff as I do."

16:56 Doug Maarschalk: Another technique for growing teams, which is really simple, is simply to the person on your left, say something that you respect appreciate or admire, and let's just go around the room. Some people feel uncomfortable with this, and that's why I give them three options. So it doesn't get too emotional. They can just say, "I like your shirt," or they could say something about, they like the way that this person helped them last week or whatever. But it's just that simple going around, and remember we're in the forest, so there's lots of interactions going on. It's not just me saying something nice to you. It's about the other five people that are hearing me say that, and that actually improves their vision of you, and then that compounds. And I've worked with teams where they've done that and the remainder of the meeting, where there was some really niggly things that they had to work through, the openness and the positive attitude and intent in the room really helped them move forward on that, rather than being closed and potentially open to conflict or unnecessary conflict.

17:51 Doug Maarschalk: So those are exercises that one could do, that wouldn't take a lot of time or cognitive energy. And from there, we talk about things that... Mastery is about, what do we want to get better and better at? And so I think it can provide conversation where we just get to know each other better. And from there, we talk about what options do we have available to us. As a team, what could optimal or appropriate autonomy look like in a year from now? And therefore, what would we have to do from a sense of purpose, and why are we doing things and caring for each other, and connection to the big picture? Or from mastery, which is learning and growing, what would we need to do to best support those things? So I call that the river of autonomy, which is a river doesn't work if it doesn't have banks. Remember the banks provide the support. And in this case, autonomy can be well supported by that sense of purpose, that sense of mastery.

18:47 There is no formula – take the insightful starting point and figure out what needs to happen from there

18:47 Doug Maarschalk: The interesting thing is, going back to what I said at the beginning, is I can't tell anyone whether it's a client or in the audience, "This is what you must do." It's simply taking this insightful starting point, and figuring it out for yourself. And for me, the exciting part about that is that we actually get to create the environment. We're not just doing what those guys overseas or those guys over there did, or the latest thing from whatever business review article you might be looking at. Those are all insightful starting points, but we get to create the environment that we want at work. And I'm really interested in the way the self-determination theory, Dan Pink's Drive, can do that for people.

19:28 Shane Hastie: Doug, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us. If people want to continue the conversation, where do they find you?

19:35 Doug Maarschalk: I think my life's already too cluttered for Twitter, so I'm not really visible there. But LinkedIn is a great place. It's just Doug Maarschalk. And I've also got a website, I do send out, it's kind of a newsletter or an insightful article, every... It was supposed to be two weeks, but actually, it's more like a month now because I've got busy. But people can sign up for that, and look at my blog, and you'll see if that's the kind of thing that you're interested in.

20:00 Shane Hastie: Thanks very much.

20:01 Doug Maarschalk: Thank you, Shane.


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