3 intrinsic sources of sales motivation (backed by research)

Sales motivation may not be as simple as you think.

Many organizations rely on traditional punishment-and-reward systems to motivate reps. But in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” author Daniel Pink explains that more powerful forms of sales motivation can come from intrinsic sources. He points to multitudes of research that identify autonomy, mastery and purpose as powerful motivators, saying that the science confirms what we already know in our hearts:

3 new sources of sales motivation (backed by research)“We know that human beings are not merely smaller, slower, better-smelling donkeys trudging after that day’s carrot. We know – if we’ve spent time with young children or remember ourselves at our best – that we’re not destined to be passive and compliant. We’re designed to be active and engaged. And we know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice – doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.”

Now, we’re not saying you should drop your current compensation structure. But the book presents compelling evidence for these intrinsic motivators. Here’s a brief summary of Daniel’s findings, as well as how you might benefit from using these as sources of sales motivation for your team.

3 researched-based sales motivation sources

Sales Motivation Source #1: Autonomy

Daniel defines the autonomy drive as, “The desire to direct our own lives.” People crave freedom to perform tasks and complete projects in their own creative ways. Research shows that given the ability to embrace individuality, employees become more productive.

The book cites a Cornell University study of 320 small businesses. Half of the businesses granted workers autonomy, but the other half relied on top-down direction. The autonomous organizations not only grew four times faster than the control-oriented ones, but they had one-third less turnover.

Daniel goes on to explain that autonomy is the opposite of control. Whereas control leads to compliance, autonomy leads to engagement. But autonomy is also different than independence.

“It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. [Autonomy] means acting with choice – which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others,” Daniel writes in his book.  

Use autonomy as sales motivation by offering your reps the freedom to perform selling tasks in their own way. Once you define the key activity metrics for your reps, let them be creative in how they prospect, nurture and close opportunities. (New sales reps need more guidance than autonomy. Start by giving them a small amount of room for creativity, then slowly increase it as they gain sales experience.)

Sales Motivation Source #2: Mastery

The book describes mastery as the urge to get better and better at something that matters. As someone who has worked up to the role of sales leader, you probably understand this drive.

“A study of 11,000 industrial scientists and engineers working at companies in the United States found that the desire for intellectual challenge – that is, the urge to master something new and engaging – was the best predictor of productivity,” Daniel explains. “Scientists motivated by this intrinsic desire filed significantly more patents than those whose main motivation was money, even [accounting] for the amount of effort each group expended.”

Of course, not everyone achieves total mastery. But this source of sales motivation comes from the satisfaction of doing work toward a goal.

“The days that people make progress are the days they feel most motivated and engaged,” Daniel writes. “By creating conditions for people to make progress, shining a light on that progress, recognizing and celebrating progress, organizations can help their own cause and enrich people’s lives.”  

Help your reps achieve mastery through weekly one-on-one coaching sessions. In addition, you can test their skills and recognize their mastery through sales certifications.

Sales Motivation Source #3: Purpose

The final source of intrinsic motivation Daniel delineates is the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

“Autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels,” Daniel writes. “But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more. The most deeply motivated people – not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied – hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.”

Daniel shared an example of physicians in high-profile settings like the Mayo Clinic, where they face pressures and demands that often lead to burnout. During a field experiment at the facility, doctors were allowed to spend one day each week on the part of their role that was the most meaningful to them, such as patient care, research or community service. The study found that this small change could reduce the physical and emotional exhaustion experienced by these doctors.

“It’s often difficult to do something exceptionally well if we don’t know the reasons we’re doing it in the first place,” Daniel writes. “People at work are thirsting for context, yearning to know that what they do contributes to a larger whole.”

Help reps define personal or professional goals they can focus on when times get tough. Personal goals can be anything from traveling the world to supporting a family. Professional goals might include becoming a sales leader or making the President’s Club. Let reps identify what gives them purpose, and then help them work toward it.  

These research-based intrinsic motivators can be powerful sources of sales motivation. To learn more about the research Daniel collected, check out his TED Talk.

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