In the last post, I have mentioned that Motivation 3.0 can be categorised by autonomy, mastery and purpose. In this post, I will briefly touch on the aspect of mastery and why the desire for intellectual challenge can lead to higher productivity.

In workplace, it is a common belief that in order to get higher productivity, a manager needs to exercise more control over his employees. Control seeks compliance which can lead to disengagement. Pink noted that Gallup’s research has shown that in the US,

“50 percent of employees are not engaged at work — and nearly 20 percent are actively disengaged. The cost of all this disengagement: about $300 billion a year lost productivity– a sum larger than the GDP of Portugal, Singapore, or Israel.”

On the contrary, the opposite of control is autonomy and it can lead to engagement. And only engagement can produce mastery.

Mastery is an intrinsic desire to get better and better at something that matters. We all inherently have it. Recall the time that you lose yourself engaging in an activity, whether it be a sport or making a commercial app. Most people classify this type of activities as play.

During play, people reported that they enjoyed “autotelic experiences” — from the Greek auto (self) and telos (goal or purpose). In an autotelic experience, the goal is self-fulfilling, the activity itself is its own reward — not necessarily the outcome. The time passes quickly and we get so completely involved that we lose the awareness.

For me, climbing is the most obvious example. While I am on a route, my mind is often totally devoted to the task of executing the next few moves that I lose the sense of time. Sometimes, I can’t hear all the encouragement people are yelling for me. During this moment, I am experiencing flow, a mental state in which our minds are completely captivated by the task at hand. In flow, the goal is clear and the feedback is immediate. In climbing, you either execute the move effortlessly or it comes with tremendous struggle. We all feel the flow when the difficulty of the challenge is rightly balanced, not too easy, but not too far beyond your current abilities.

How does this translate into workplaces? Businesses like Microsoft, Patagonia and Toyota started to create flow-friendly environments, which can increase productivity and workplace satisfaction.

In flow, there is a strong connection between what you are trying to achieve and relevant prompt feedback. As Malcolm Gladwell noted in Outliers:The Story of Success, mastery cannot be obtained if the connection between outcome and feedback is weak. It is like giving students back their assignments after exams. That is exactly the pitfall one should avoid in workplace. Instead of relying on annual performance reviews, which can disconnect feedback from the task, managers can opt to sit down with employees on more regular basis. This allows managers to regularly adjust assignments to assist employees in finding their flow.

Not surprisingly, study has shown that desire for challenge in workplace is the best indicator for productivity. When we are engaged, we are willing to work more.