What motivates you?

A 4 minute read written by carson July 3, 2013

man running up infinite stairs

In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink argues that the traditional carrot-and-stick motivators simply don’t work with the creative, knowledge worker-types like we have at Yellow Pencil. Instead, he focuses on three new motivators for workplaces like ours: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. It’s really interesting and well worth reading, so if you don’t have time to read the book, at least watch this video.

That’s all fine and well, but in the end it’s was not what the experts say will motivate our team that’s important - it’s what the people who actually work here said would motivate them. So I decided to just asked everyone. In the end, almost every person in the company responded and I had 13 pages of input to sift through.

The results were quite varied. Randall simply emailed me this photo of a boat. Erika’s response, when I very politely reminded her that I hadn’t gotten her feedback yet was, "You know what motivates me? You shutting up!" So - you know - not all useful.

So, aside from a couple of outliers, the rest of the feedback tended to fall into three broad tags:

The work itself

By far the most commonly cited source of motivation for the YP team is the actual work we do on a day-to-day basis. This includes the following factors:

  • interesting/fun projects that result in useful/cool things

  • challenging problems

  • sense of accomplishment

  • ownership in the final product

Who we work with

The second big theme that came up from the feedback was the environment we work within. This one covered a fair bit of territory, including:

  • pride in Yellow Pencil

  • leadership, attitude and fairness of the owners, Paul & Dave

  • our fellow co-workers (more than one person used the word “family”)

  • teamwork/collaboration

  • clients we care about


The final leg on the YP motivation stool is the opportunity to learn new things. Related aspects that came up in this same realm were:

  • desire to succeed

  • growth/improvement

  • being heard/getting feedback

  • empowerment

That’s all good stuff, but none of this means anything if we don’t act on it. We have to convert all of the identified motivators into real-life, day-to-day stuff. Here are ten ideas on how we can make that happen:

  1. Project selection - It all starts at the business development stage. Of course, not every job is going to be a day at the circus, but where possible we should make an effort to hone in on projects that the team finds interesting and useful. We can accomplish this by getting team input before we even decide on what projects to pursue.

  2. Strategic resourcing - If we want people to be motivated by their work, we have to put them on the right projects and the right tasks. It has to be both interesting and challenging. We have a skills matrix that gives us a starting point here, but we really just need to talk to people and find the right matches.

  3. The big picture - In order for people to feel ownership of a project, we need to make a clear connection between their work and the final product so they can see how it all fits together. This requires keeping the whole team involved throughout the project - from presentation to team celebration.

  4. Leadership - We have pretty great leadership at Yellow Pencil already. (Man, I hope they’re reading this!) The key here is to give those guys the time to properly lead and then help develop new leaders by their example. We’re doing this through the formation of advisory groups where current and future leaders get together to work through issues.

  5. Friendship - It’s simple: how much you like the people you work with can affect your motivation. Knowing this, it’s important that we hire with our culture in mind. Furthermore, we should encourage friendship within the team through things like sports teams, going out for lunch together, outside-of-work activities, etc.

  6. Teamwork - Related to friendship, we need to be mindful of how project teams are formed and how they work together. We should assemble teams that work well together and then help them succeed by providing a collaboration-positive environment, including things like ample meeting time and efficient communication tools.

  7. Pride - We want to be the best at what we do - it’s what drives us. We can demonstrate that through our results as well as through things like speaking and writing gigs. But pride can also come from sources like our involvement in charitable work, for example. Unfortunately, we cannot be very proud of our sports teams (we’re awful).

  8. Learning time - Two of our values are “we keep improving” and “we master our craft”, so learning is clearly important here. This manifests itself as education allowances, a “Champions” program (where people are encouraged to become experts in a particular topic), and in allotting time each week for everyone to learn and develop.

  9. Feedback - People want to know when they’re doing well and where they can improve. To help provide this, we do formal annual reviews and are now starting to roll out weekly one-on-one meetings. Of course, the best feedback is immediate, so it’s important that we have a culture where people feel comfortable providing and receiving constructive feedback..

  10. Recognition - Surprisingly, not many people listed this as a motivation, but it certainly can’t hurt. Also: it’s cheap. We currently do this publicly at our Monday morning all-team standups. Also, I have been known to give team members terrible ceramic figurines as trophies.

We know that everyone at Yellow Pencil will be motivated in different ways, but hopefully by casting a wide enough net, we make sure that we’re doing enough to keep people engaged, productive and happy.

What do you do at your company to encourage motivation?