Are You Falling for the Old “Scooby Snack” Trick?

Remember Scooby?  He’ll do just about any dangerous, scary, unpleasant task that needs to be done, if he can get a Snooby snack or two out of it.  The Scooby snack is a classic example of “extrinsic” motivation – something external that you want.  At work, companies set up all kinds of carefully designed extrinsic motivations – money (bonuses, raises), status (levels, titles), and perks (nicer offices, first class travel).  Their goal is to get you to throw yourself into the work that the company needs to get done, regardless of how fulfilling you find it.  They are happy if you find yourself fulfilled, too, but the system is designed to encourage you to work hard even if you aren’t.

But isn’t that how the world works?  Isn’t the basis of capitalism the desire to better your situation?  Extrinsic motivation certainly works, up to a point.  However, the story is a bit more complicated than that.  We strive to get rewards, but often it isn’t purely about their absolute value.

The Drive for Status

As a species, we’re acutely conscious of our social status.  There have been a number of really interesting studies showing that more money is not the key to happiness after a certain point .. but that making less money than the people around us (regardless of income level) makes us unhappy.  In general, our status is more important than the absolute amount of money we make.  For example, one study examined 12,000 adults in Britain, ranking people based on geography, age, income, and educational level.   “Boyce and Moore found that an individual’s rank, viewed this way, was a stronger predictor of happiness than absolute wealth. The higher a person ranked within his age group or neighborhood, the more status he had and the happier he was regardless of how much he made.”

This focus on status makes a lot of sense when you consider that pre-historic humans were essentially dead if they weren’t part of a group, and that their ability to survive and have children was heavily dependent on their status.  The symbols of success or failure have evolved, but our basic drives have not changed (as you can see in Status Anxiety, Alain De Boton’s fun and thought-provoking book).

All of this research is good background if you decide that you are going to settle for extrinsic motivation – you might as well make sure that you pursue the things that will give the most happiness.  For example, you might be a lot better off hanging out with a different crowd rather than scrabbling for that raise or buying a fancier car.

But I think a much more interesting challenge is to focus on a different model – trying to find an environment that fosters your intrinsic motivation instead.

Motivation from Within

Think about the projects that really made you happy – at work, at home, at school, wherever.  When you were doing them, you couldn’t wait to dig in again.  They are the times you look back on with the most satisfaction.  What do they have in common?  I’m going to guess that it wasn’t the size of your weekly paycheck, the car you drove to work, or the title on your business card.  Those moments in your life are giving you valuable clues as to what really inspires you.

For me, the recipe is pretty simple:

  • I think that what I am doing is new and important
  • I have great people to work with
  • We are all pushing hard to achieve something together as a unified team
  • I am contributing in some meaningful way to the project

That’s pretty much it.  Or, as I like to say, “I want to be with people who inspire me, obsessing together over something worth obsessing about.”  If a project has those things going for it, I’m probably going to be happy.

There is also evidence that people do better work when they are intrinsically motivated.  For an entertaining walk through some of these ideas, try this presentation by Daniel Pink (who also wrote a book about the subject called Drive).  I find it really intriguing that, for a whole range of experiments, larger monetary rewards produced poorer results.  His argument is that there are three key things people seek: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  He talks about how this model helps explain the open source software movement.

My own experience is pretty consistent with this model.  For me, autonomy shows up in two ways.  The most important one is that the team feels that it can do what needs to be done.  That’s often hard within large organizations, and was a significant frustration for me when I worked in one.  It’s one key reason why startups can be so fun – they don’t have much in the way of resources, but they certainly have a lot of autonomy!  Personal autonomy is less important to me – I like working closely with others and am happy to adapt my ideas if there are others around who are making them smarter.  Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I’ve found that as long as the right people are involved, personal autonomy hasn’t been a big problem.

Purpose is crucial.  I have to believe in the project and that it is important.  I may be wrong, or others may believe that I am delusional .. that doesn’t matter.  What matters to me is that I believe it.

Mastery is also a core goal – I want to contribute to the project in some deeply important way by being excellent at something.  Ideally, I’d like to be great at some part of the work (so I add value right away) and I want to build mastery in other skills I didn’t have when I started.

What Motivates You?

I’ve had this conversation with many people, and most of them never sat down to think about their real intrinsic motivations.  Maybe autonomy, mastery, and purpose is it for you .. or maybe your answer will be different.  The key thing is to figure it out.  Otherwise, your employers will be happy to provide an endless supply of organizational Scooby snacks for you to covet and pursue.  Are you settling for that?


  1. John Wyss says:

    A really cogent summary of what sometimes has been called Motivation 3.0. Unfortunately most companies fail to actively implement the kind of environment and culture which can support this incredible ‘force multiplier’ because it’s mostly about getting rid of people who aren’t inherently motivated in the right ways (see , and any institutional barriers to empowering them to pursue mastery. One of my great lessons as a manager is accepting that I really cannot motivate people who are not already sufficiently curious, aspiring and self-propelled, I can only get in their way or allow others to do so.
    One small nit, Pink’s research does specify that monetary rewards beyond a certain level are not effective, that threshold varying by geography, industry etc.

    • Yes, I think it’s quite rare for companies to mindfully create an environment that fosters those values. Like you, I don’t have a lot of optimism about motivating the unmotivated, but I do think it is possible to create an environment that offers autonomy, supports mastery, and has a strong sense of purpose. The people who are right for that mission and that environment will then be in a position to flourish. Purpose in particular is not universal – not everybody will be inspired by the same kind of mission, so you have to find the ones who are passionate about what you are trying to do.

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