What is intrinsic motivation?
The temperature still hovered around 100 degrees when I arrived shortly after midnight on the 1st of September 2004 at Al Asad airbase in Iraq’s Anbar Province. I was among a group of three or four Marines assigned as “individual augments” to Regimental Combat Team 7. We had just completed our two-day journey from Camp Pendleton, which was 10 time zones away in California. For me personally, the journey had started from Quantico, Virginia, about ten days before (that was my duty station at the time and where my family lived). The other augments and I had been sent to Camp Pendleton for some pre-deployment training and to draw additional equipment we would need in Iraq.
Shortly after arriving we found ourselves in the RCT’s operations center getting an orientation (none of us were ready to sleep, we were still on California time). Within a few minutes a young Lance Corporal showed up and we handed him a copy of our travel orders and receipts. In my case since I had come from Quantico, I had commercial travel and lodging expenses that needed reimbursement. I turned everything over to him and then made a note in my notebook to check on my travel pay in four or five days. In my experience in the Marine Corps to that point (I was a Major at the time), settling travel claims was notoriously slow and I frequently had to encourage the administrative section to do the necessary follow up. I distinctly remember worrying about how long it might take to get it done correctly from Iraq, as I hoped I would be able to smooth it out before it caused pay difficulties for my wife and kids back home.
It was after 1 o’clock in the morning by then and the Lance Corporal who collected our paperwork looked to be no more than 20 or 21 years old. I didn’t know how the RCT’s administrative section worked and assumed he would file all the papers somewhere so more experienced Marines could deal with it when they came in to start their shift in the morning. I made my note in my book and then quickly got re-absorbed into our operations center orientation.
About an hour later, a phone rang and a Marine called out, “Is there a Major Vivian here?” I quickly took the phone in bewilderment (who even knew I was there?). It was the young Lance Corporal calling. He confidently told me that my travel claim had been filed, he told me how much I should expect to receive in reimbursement, and he told me the money would arrive in my checking account in five to seven days. Then he told me how to get hold of him if I had any problems and courteously wished me a good night. I was stunned.
In that moment I realized I had experienced something noteworthy. It was clear to me that the outfit I had just joined was exceptional. It turns out the young Lance Corporal was in charge of the night watch for the RCT’s administrative section. Within a few weeks I became the senior watch officer for the operation section’s night shift, so I was able to frequently witness the Lance Corporal’s performance leading his share of the night watch. My travel claim was nothing compared to the gravity and importance of the casualty reporting aspects of his job. He led the Marines in his section through another seven months of high tempo combat operations as they completed this solemn duty with unerring accuracy and the utmost professionalism. His leadership was an amazing example of someone who completely owned his part of the mission, and I find it all the more remarkable because he literally did it in the dark of night.
The RCT had either instilled in him a profound sense of purpose or they had matched the right person to his calling. Either way, his performance that fall is one of the clearest examples of intrinsic motivation I have ever encountered. He was doing a job that would never be featured in a press release. He still did it well, night after night.
This anonymous Lance Corporal’s example inspired me to learn more about intrinsic motivation, which led me to author Dan Pink’s book Drive and his related TEDTalk. Dan says that intrinsic motivation consists of three elements (autonomy, mastery, and purpose), and I’ve learned that understanding them can help you tap into that motivation. For other leaders, I think this example helps illustrate the idea in a couple of ways:
1. Giving someone autonomy takes moral courage. In a decision that was made well before I arrived at the RCT, the Lance Corporal’s leaders decided to trust him to lead a shift of Marines for 12 hours without immediate supervision. While the Marine Corps often makes a virtue out of necessity in cases like this, it still took moral courage for someone to say, “I trust you, you’ve got it.”
2. Helping people find professional joy in their work is likely a high priority for frontline leaders in the 21st century. Research on the Millennial Generation and early research on Generation Z points in this direction. Helping people get better at something they think is important (mastery) and helping them connect their purpose to something greater than themselves unleashes intrinsic motivation. The young Lance Corporal was relatively quiet (and even humble), but his confidence in his ability to do his job and the sense of purpose he showed were unmistakable and they animated his actions.
3. Intrinsic motivation is a complex concept. It’s challenging to explain in a way that people find engaging. Having an anecdote to share makes it much easier, our brains are built to connect with stories. Leaders should listen carefully for the good stories taking place in their organizations.
As that young Lance Corporal taught me many years ago, you’ll be amazed at what your organization can accomplish once your people feel the drive of purpose.