I don’t think we’ve yet cracked the question of how do we, as an individual leader in public service, contribute to that purpose. So what tends to happen is we get hired into a job, let’s say a government somewhere, civil service, and I’ll be honest, [you] seem like a robot who’s there to fulfill the purpose of the government department or division. The challenge though I think is, in today’s world, especially with younger workers, we ourselves want to feel a sense of a personal mission statement. And by that, what is our own North Star?
– Sharath Jeevan, Founder and Executive Chairman, Intrinsic Labs
Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, this is Matthew Bishop with Books Driving Change. And today I’m talking with Sharath Jeevan, who is the author of Intrinsic: A Manifesto to Reignite Our Inner Drive. Sharath is a social entrepreneur who came out of the business world, consulting world, and helped launch STIR Education — which is an organization that helps teachers improve their performance through their better motivation and sharing of insights — he can elaborate on that — in many countries, including India and Indonesia, and some parts of Africa. And now he runs Intrinsic Labs, which we’ll talk a bit about as well, I hope.
The audience for this show, Sharath, is people who are conscious of this crisis that we’ve been living through in the pandemic, [and how that] has revealed a need for greater public service to re-engage people with talent and insight and leadership capacity into the public realm of public service. And I wondered if you could say in a sentence for them — why they should read your book?
Sharath Jeevan (SJ): Thanks Matthew, real pleasure to be on the show. And I think it’s so important for those of us leading change in public service to know what deeply motivates ourselves as individuals and leaders. And that idea of really trying to find lasting motivation from within for ourselves, really with a view that that can help us motivate the people around us — our teams, if we’ve got teams in our work, but also, of course, as citizens. Our work is ultimately geared towards that, and that applies, whether we’re public servants, or we’re political leaders, or trying to affect change, in the social sector, or nonprofit sector, etc. And these are universal themes the book talks about.
MB: In the book, you set out in a powerful way a number of the trends that have caused many people to lose touch with what it is that motivates them from within and to be driven by external factors – as to what you call “extrinsic”. To the extent that you really feel there’s a huge crisis in the world of loss of connection with ourselves, and that that’s underlying many of the issues that emerge all over the place, in different aspects of life, and is proving dysfunctional in many parts of the world. But could you just spell that out for us? What is the key problem that you think we need to solve at this point and that Intrinsic is setting out to solve as a book?
As a civil servant, for example, you’ve got to know how to… influence ministers, how to work with colleagues, how to work with different kinds of disciplines.
SJ: Yes, I think it’s moving our dial, that motivational dial, [away] from extrinsic or external factors. So for example, in the world of work, we would think a lot about pay, about status, how fancy our job title is, how fancy our office is. These are critical things and we’re not saying they’re not important — many people in the world don’t have them, we need to make sure they do. But for those of us who do have those, they have a diminishing effect over time. That was a ceiling effect.
I was talking to a trader in the City of London who got a £21.5 million bonus for the year. And his first reaction when his boss told him the news was, I had to work harder, because I know that someone else down the corridor got more than me. So that idea that there’s never enough in some of these things, but we can keep chasing them, [although] that won’t give us fulfillment, happiness, and actually won’t give us success in the long term either. What we’ve got to do is move that motivational belt inwards to thinking about how we can really do what we do — particularly in public service, because it’s genuinely fulfilling, motivating, and rewarding.
It’s a bit like driving an electric car compared to a car driving on heavy diesel — it should feel enjoyable in its own right. And we know the key pillars of intrinsic motivation are around “purpose” — that sense of how work helps and serves others — and “autonomy” — that sense of us being in control of our destiny, as public policy leaders. And finally, becoming a “master” — or becoming a better and better leader over time. We never get to perfection, but we’re getting and developing and growing. So purpose, autonomy and mastery are key to us really moving that dial inwards. And we know that it’s much more likely to lead us to be happy, fulfilled, and successful.
MB: One of the things you do very well in the book is marshall a lot of academic research that’s supportive of your claim on intrinsic motivation. And I think maybe “purpose” in particular has become one of those buzzwords that I think everyone is talking about — a lot of company leaders, a lot of political people, saying we need to have purpose, clear and everything. Just what is the evidence that purpose matters and can be a game changer? And, with a slightly cynical hat on, how do we tell real purpose, real change making purpose, from the sort of bullshit PR purpose that a lot of people might be inclined to say [they have], if they’re under pressure, in these leadership roles at the moment to try and sign sound appealing to millennials?
SJ: I think that you put the nail right on the head. A lot of problems we are having with this purpose discussion is that it has been taken to this PR territory, and thousands of staff are subject to these kinds of corporate workshops, or government workshops, where they’re bombarded with purpose statements from the company and so on.
What I tried to look at on “purpose” was look at that really simple definition. I was trying to define it from first principles around just how what we do helps and serves others — take away all the airy fairy language and so on. The challenge, I think, is that actually organizations are getting better and better, to be absolutely fair, on defining organizational purpose — why that company, or how it helps and serves others. I don’t think we’ve yet cracked the question of how do we, as an individual leader in public service, contribute to that purpose. So what tends to happen is we get hired into a job, let’s say a government somewhere, civil service, and I’ll be honest, [you] seem like a robot who’s there to fulfill the purpose of the government department or division. The challenge though I think is, in today’s world, especially with younger workers, we ourselves want to feel a sense of a personal mission statement. And by that, what is our own North Star?
Let me just give you mine as an example: I help organizations and leaders to reignite inner drive by writing, coaching, consulting. So I help organizations and leaders to reignite inner drive by writing, coaching, consulting — just a very, very simple 15-word statement. But it’s a really helpful North Star that helps me remember why I’m doing what I do. And if I joined an organization — I work for myself now, but I do write, consult for one, as you mentioned — the question I’m asking is how am I contributing to that organization’s purpose statement? But also, how are they contributing to mine? How are they helping me achieve mine? And when I think both things are in harmony, we’ve got a great marriage between an employee and an organization. I think we have a great motivational deal in place. But the temptation is we tend to forget the individual and forget that we all need that for ourselves as much as needed for our organizations.
MB: And then you also talk about “autonomy” and “masteries”. What’s the key issue today with autonomy, and what do you mean by that?
SJ: If you look at political life today, I’d argue we’re in a really difficult autonomy situation, one where we’ve got two extremes. I talked about some of the research in the book about political leadership where you can have the extreme. For example in the U.S., perhaps both houses where it’s almost like individual lawmakers — it’s Clint Eastwood extreme, or if you like, a Lone Ranger type behavior. But the other extreme where when you’re an MPs, often in the U.K., they are often micromanaged. And how do you have the right balance between these two things is important. In enough autonomy you’re representing a genuine community of constituencies for your elected office. But also, you also need to make sure that you are adhering to the broad direction of the party that you were being elected to join. How do you find that balancing act? That’s a key piece. So it can’t be either extreme. It can’t be micromanagement, nor can it be a complete free for all. How do you negotiate between is a key idea in the book.
MB: But one of the things you generally observe is the people not feeling very much autonomy at work in that sense.
SJ: Absolutely. So I was talking, for example, about teachers in the book, and we have record numbers of teachers leaving every month. In the U.S., 30,000, 40,000, 50,000 teachers a month leave the profession. In the U.K. 40% of teachers want to leave. It’s not because they don’t enjoy teaching anymore. It’s because they feel like they are being micromanaged. And their head teachers, their leaders in the school system are asking, What would Ofsted say, rather than what’s the right thing to do for my school, my community. So they feel often like a pawn on a very big chessboard and unable to exert their own professional judgment and discretion. That’s a really killer, killer blow for motivation.
MB: And that’s a problem across government do you find in particular?
SJ: I think very much. So I spent quite a lot of time talking to lawmakers in a lot of different countries, in the emerging world and the developed world. And that sense of not being able to control their own destiny — for example, many of them wanted to be in the “for one nation tradition” where they really weren’t genuinely supporting the whole country. They feel more and more like they’re being held to factions as well.
MB: And “mastery” is the third concept. So you have purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Specialization has been a huge theme — to the extent that we now have lots of books about how dangerous silos are. Because we’ve all become so specialized, we don’t really know how to reach out across silos and think in a joined up way in decision making. But what do you mean by mastery? You mean something very different to that.
SJ: I talk in the book about the “10,000 hour rule”, and this idea that a lot of the mastery discussions have been about technical prowess. And there’s a lot of evidence that’s true in technical domains, but a lot of the future of modern jobs today, they thrive because of the human skills. As a civil servant, for example, you’ve got to know how to develop policy and legislation. But you’ve also got to know how to influence ministers, how to work with colleagues, how to work with different kinds of disciplines.
I look at the COVID response, for example, those human skills are much harder to subject to simple 10,000 hour rules. It’s much more of the broader human aspects of our work. And so how do we codify those — what I call the “order essentials of mastery” — and try to make them something [people] actually actively want to work on, and become better and better at? They’re often things that are actually not on a public servant’s job description, that actually are the magic of the job these days. And how do you make them explicit? How do you codify them? And how do you find a systematic way of improving them, and also find people who can nurture your skills as you progress in your careers?
Most people go into public service because they want to make a difference to the world or the country. We’ve got to play to that and build cultures that really help them do that.
MB: So give us an example of where you’ve seen a different approach be applied, [one] that’s really moved away from that sort of 10,000 hour rule approach, to something more holistic.
SJ: Giving examples from my own life with STIR Education. I had a finance director who was fantastic. And she was really, really good at making sure we had good reliable management accounts every month. The challenge is that as we became bigger as an organization, that actually a lot of her role was shifting from that technical aspect she was very comfortable into influencing our staff, or running our program for teachers — for them to spend money better, to know how to use resources better, to make sure they felt more comfortable in terms of financial literacy, and be able to use the numbers themselves to make intelligent decisions. So we did a lot to try and break barriers down. Simple things, like she where she sat in the office. Often, finance tends to have their own little cubicle or room because they feel that what they’ve got is confidential information. So I said, Why don’t you rotate around the office every day, every week, so you meet different colleagues, you can talk to them, see their reality. She spent many days in the field, with schools, seeing the work on the ground, and seeing a lot of the processes that we had time might be actually hindering progress. So it’s trying to break down silos. And back to that personal mission statement, if you think my role at purpose level is to produce management accounts on time and accurately, that’s one purpose statement. If it’s to help the organization as a whole make better decisions, that’s a different one. So how do you try and break some of the traditional ways of thinking down to open up jobs in public service and make them fulfilling and motivated?
MB: And you talked about STIR Education, and the book opens with this inspiring story and how you were surprised, in a sense, by the appeal of the message. Can you just talk a bit about what happened and why that’s given you hope? And have you seen other examples since?
SJ: So, I got into this whole thing by accident. I’m an economist by background at the end. I was very much someone to believe in the hard skills of life around finance, or economics, and so on. I think what happened is, starting off in the slums of Delhi, we were trying to find some great teaching ideas to be shared around the world. That by looking for the ideas in some of the poorest parts of the world, there was not huge pride. In a sense, my teachers, for the first time, their ideas mattered. And they were actually important people in their own right, and they enjoyed meeting each other and sharing ideas.
That buzz of energy would, almost by accident, even though we didn’t know what these terms meant at the time, but we’re unlocking purpose, autonomy and mastery, almost as a byproduct of what we were doing. We realized we had confused the baby in the bathwater. And actually, magic was that ignition of teachers, that reigniting of motivation, and that really shifted my view of the world.
I now work for a range of organizations – as an advisor at L’Oreal, to the Kenyan government. But that core idea that actually everyone goes into a job, especially in public service, with a high degree of intrinsic motivation, as had these teachers, but as we work longer and longer, the cultures around us tend to drag it out of us. And then the trick is how to keep ourselves motivated despite that at the individual level. But if we’re leaders in public service, how do we create cultures that build on that intrinsic motivation, and make us feel more and more motivated, rather than taking away that energy over time?
MB: I think the experience of teachers in many parts of the world is similar. There are people that were idealistic when they went into the profession; and then they’ve just been worn down really by the engagement with the bureaucracy, particularly as you say that the Ofsted-like factors of just being forced to do more and more testing and feeling you’re just a pawn on the chessboard.
And I guess, one of the things that sort of motivates us at Driving Change is, that that [also] seems to be an issue with public service — that people would like to be idealistic about serving the public interest and serving their communities, but government, in particular, is so unappealing because it just feels like in all sorts of different ways that it’s not going to be a good, intrinsic, fulfilling experience. As you’ve tried to help professionals, like teachers, police, as well as other aspects of government, have you found ways to shift the system so that your idealism doesn’t get handed in at the door?
SJ: A whole chapter in the book is on public service and centric political life, because our leaders are so important — as we’re seeing in Ukraine now – as in the pandemic of the last couple of years. So just reading Tony Blair commenting on how he wouldn’t have gone into politics today, given the level of scrutiny, the trolling on social media, all these kinds of crazy pressures. Whether you like him or not, I think generally a lot of people, our brightest people often, as you said, don’t think of service first, [as] they should do. And one of the things I think that we could try to do is to create a more motivating environment for would-be politicians.
I’m doing some work with apolitical and UCL around this actually, a fascinating little piece of work. And take the purpose piece, this idea of our work as a legislator or a lawmaker, helping and serving others. A lot of people I spoke to in many houses of parliament around the world feel that that idea of a one nation — that you’re there to help the whole country — that’s been lost by factionalism. And one of the ideas I explored in the book is how can we all try to create back a sense of genuine national purpose that is genuinely across divides and across political parties, and focuses on what unites us more than what divides us. I was looking at Kennedy in the book and some of the things he was saying many years ago, about how can we try and find that common ground and resist that temptation to exacerbate differences, [just] because it scores points.
That sense of autonomy again — I was talking to ministers in various governments, including the U.K., where they told me they heard about major policy announcements by what came on the news headlines, often secondhand, and they were the second people to know. And that obviously became ridiculous in the pandemic, where lockdown changes are being leaked to the press before MPs had a chance to even look at them. And that makes a mockery of parliamentary processes and demotivates ministers and MPs more widely. Because of the accountability pressures and the scrutiny, prime ministers, presidents etc. have tended to create kitchen cabinets, where you have five people in a room, and you pretty much decide everything in the country. [But] we have about 100 ministers in the country right now if you take the U.K., all very sensible, talented people. [Figuring out] how do we harness their strengths and place that broader narrative and group there is another part of our autonomy side.
And mastery — in talking to people, for example, in the House of Lords in the U.K., who got in the chamber, they were shown where the toilets were, shown how to get to the despatch box, but not much more to be honest. And, we would never allow doctors or lawyers or accountants to be trained this way. The Institute of Government in the U.K. does some training for ministers and is just fantastic. But it’s not compulsory, it’s very ad hoc. And this is a real job. I mean, this is a very, very difficult and demanding role. We need to develop more formal mechanisms of mastery that allow for more peer learning, more discussion, more sharing of experiences, as well as more formal training to help develop our elected leaders.
MB: And would you apply the same framework to civil servants, and people going in other parts of public service, not as elected officials but as building a career?
SJ: I think they’re very similar pieces. Now, one of the things that’s interesting with “purpose” for civil servants is that I talked to many senior civil servants in the British government, for example, [where] you obviously have to somewhat accept that the party in power may not have the same views that you have as an individual, but your job is to make sure that the direction they were elected on is executed as well as possible. That’s an interesting purpose question because there is that interesting tension between personal purpose and what the role may require sometimes. But the civil servants I’ve talked to really are able to say, Well, whether or not I agree with this, I’ve been able to really make sure that the needs of my country are put into action. In terms of that piece that’s been interesting. I think with the autonomy side, in civil service, there’s a lot of scrutiny and it’s very easy to lose your job in civil service if you do something wrong. So there tends to be a little bit of guardedness sometimes. And what that concerns me is a bit of a defensive culture. The best civil servants I know, they know how to stick their neck out. But they also know when to be careful. Just knowing when to duck and dive is a key element.
There is more on mastery — there’s more formal mechanisms, professional development, building networks, especially across departments, and across levels. I’m seeing more and more of that, and that’s a very, very encouraging sign. Because, again, a lot of the key skills in civil service today are not on the job description formally. How do you actually find that? You do that through learning through peers, and going through experiences, and doing things. Very few policies ever look back on and said, Did that work? What worked well, what didn’t go well? [We need to] make sure we create reflective spaces where civil servants can look back at what they’ve done and try to reflect and then use that as an improvement mechanism as well.
MB: I mean, none of this involves paying them more or anything like that to improve in paying conditions. I think he obviously talked about pay bonuses, status, etc, as these hygiene things, the basics, that you need to have in place. As you look at government and civil service, and perhaps you compare it with the sort of growing trend for people who are committed and pumped to public service but want to go and do it in corporations and nonprofits where they might certainly in terms from the corporate side get better deals in terms of those basic hygiene of pay and status — how much is pay the problem that is discouraging many idealistic people from really taking the path to government? And do you think we have to fix that basic before we can get to the intrinsic, mastery, purpose, and autonomy points that you’ve talked about?
SJ: I think the research is pretty clear that it depends on where we are relative to other professions, so it’s about the relative gap. I think most people in public service will always expect some kind of discount to the private sector — in practice, that’s what happens. But just make sure that it is manageable as well. And just that you can keep your family fed, if you have a family, etc. All these things are very important. So we shouldn’t neglect that point, we need to constantly keep making sure that people can live sensible and decent lives on whatever their pay is, either elected office or in the civil service.
But I think beyond that, looking at India for example, where teacher pay went up and up and the teachers became some of the highest paid in the world relative to per capita GDP, it did nothing for motivation, actually. So we just can’t treat pay as a silver bullet. It’s good to make sure we get it right and be sensible about it, but really what matters more is intrinsic factors. And most people go into public service because they want to make a difference to the world or the country. We’ve got to play to that and build cultures that really help them do that. And if you do that, they’ll be motivated. And that will lead to better retention of civil servants, [it] will lead to more people wanting to go into the profession in the first place. And you’ll create a virtuous cycle and probably the public will be more open to higher salaries for public servants, or MPs, over time. So you kind of create a virtuous cycle if you get on the right intrinsic track.
MB:We [should] pick up the teachers’ point. What did you see that was most effective as you were working with Indian teachers, and these relatively highly paid people, many of them weren’t even turning up for work on a regular basis? How do you turn that round?
SJ: Yes, we found it was really simple. For us, we looked at how do we try and inject purpose, autonomy, and mastery into a school system. And we started by running teacher networks — groups of teachers 20-25 or so who would come together every month and go through a structured process to build their motivation, build a sense of purpose, build a sense of autonomy. They tried new techniques, learned to do things alone, [saw] what’s possible, but also “mastery”, they learned how to become better and better. And doing that in a very collective fun engaging experience.
We then learned that actually those networks are to grow and grow. They went from one network in Delhi in 2012, to [now] about 8000 a month, involving about 200,000 teachers, across about 35,000 schools. As that happened, we realized that actually what mattered next was the leaders of the system. So the people who manage teachers in systems, they had to buy into this, because if not, they would always be undermined. And so we started training those people to run the network. And we started working with people, very senior people, in governments and in ministries to oversee that, to make sure it was part of that budget, part of their training system. So there was kind of role modeling happening in all levels of a system as well. But it didn’t cost very much. I think the cost for the teachers was about $20 U.S. per year, most of that was taken from existing training budgets. It wasn’t about the money. It was more, as you’re saying, about building that space in and be willing to try new ways of doing things.
MB: And what was the evidence for you that that was working?
SJ: We saw some pretty strong evidence that absenteeism effort improved quite substantially. Also, the relationships with teachers and children improved a lot — just teachers knowing kids names, engaging them better, thinking of them as individuals, and nurturing kids more effectively — was something we all saw from that.
MB: Another big area of public service, that’s obviously got a lot of questions being asked about the motivation and culture of the moment is — policing. And you touch on that a bit in the book — what needs to happen there?
What we’ve got to do is move to thinking about how we can really do what we do — particularly in public service, because it’s genuinely fulfilling, motivating, and rewarding.
SJ: So we sort of heard about William Bratton, and some of these stories in the U.S., and Malcolm Gladwell popularized some of them and so on. There’s a lot of truth in them. I think data has improved things. But it has slightly given this kind of culture, or created this kind of misconception, that it’s all about seeing an individual policeman as a bit of a pawn on a chessboard, and driving into different things. That sense of autonomy has been really heavily undermined.
And I think what we need to do is rethink and remember that policemen are human beings, they’ve had a lot of challenges — with everything black lives matter to the vigils last year in the U.K. — so how do we try and help them see that sense of professionalism again, and bring that sense of professional dignity and motivation in what they do? Targets? I think what’s happened is we’ve overelied on targets for them. But remember that policing, especially, there’s a lot of things that cannot be reduced to a spreadsheet — it’s highly discretionary, you have to have very good judgment. It’s what I call in the book “a wicked profession”, as in, there’s no easy technical solution to it. We’ve got to help them create the conditions where they can make the right judgments at the right time. And encourage them to do that and make them feel supported to do that, as well. So I think we need to rethink that approach of sort of policing by numbers a bit.
MB: Have you, again, had experiments that have worked in that respect?
SJ: We’re just starting, we’re working with a group of IDFC. I had a chance to talk to a number of senior officers in India, for example, and really, really dynamic leaders in the police force. Now, take India as an example. What they need is the freedom not to drive change and change culture, that’s always the hardest thing. But particularly how to help the constables and other frontline who often feel quite demotivated. How do you help them build trust with citizens, so they’re not mistrusted? And there’s a genuine sense of their being linked to their community. Get that bit right, huge things can happen. And I saw some small examples through some of that early research work, where that was possible. Now, the question is, how do we try to scale that and try and make that more of a norm?
MB: We’re almost out of time. I just wanted to end by asking you — What’s been the biggest change in your own life as a result of diving into this thinking about intrinsic motivation? What would you advise anyone else that wants to really reconnect with this intrinsic drive to do, beyond reading your book?
SJ: So one of the most fun parts for me writing the book was looking at the side of our personal lives — our lives and relationships, and as parents. And I’m both a husband and father of two young boys. And it really made me question my own assumptions. Take parenting as an example. What kind of parent do I want to be for my kids? How do I help them be motivated? And I, like many middle class parents those days, I was guilty of pushing them from one activity to another. From homework club, to a tennis coaching session, to a piano class ,and all this kind of nonsense. And actually just remembering what matters for them is they loved life, they love learning, and they’re good people. And they have high degrees of intrinsic motivation.
So I changed my parenting style quite substantially, since writing the book, to hopefully be more nurturing as a parent to help them find what they enjoy doing. Helping them build on that, helping them nurture their purpose, autonomy, and mastery. But what’s also been helpful is if I tried to adapt some of these things to my own life, that role modeling effect — if they see me trying to do these things, that can be just as powerful. So I think the book is not just about our work lives, those are important, but also our lives as real human beings.
MB: Well, thank you. And what is one piece of advice to anyone that wants to start down this path of saying, Okay, I’ve heard what you’ve got to say, I’ll read the book, [but] are there practical steps?
SJ: I talked about in the book, a four stage journey you can go on as an individual to think about them. The first thing that it starts with is put down what I call the “cost of inaction”. What tends to happen is we don’t articulate why the current reality, the lack of D motivation, is hurting us so much. But we forget, we’re going to be working the same 90,000 hours in our working lives on average. If we’re not motivated, we’re going in and feel like we’re drudging through the day each day, it exerts a huge emotional, social, even financial cost on us. Just write down what the pain feels like. And that can really inspire us to say, Look, it’s worth a try, it’s worth taking a little bit of a risk here — it’s worth taking that first small step that I talked about in the book. So I think sometimes we just take things for granted too much. Write down why it hurts so much. And that will give us some motivation to go forward.
MB: On that note, thank you very much, Sharath Jeevan. The book is Intrinsic: A Manifesto to Reignite Our Inner Drive. It’s a beautifully written book, as well as full of great insights. So I highly recommend it to all our listeners. And thank you for joining Books Driving Change today.
SJ: Thanks for having me.
NOTE: Intrinsic is currently available in the U.K. It will be published in the U.S. in September 2022.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity.