Newborn to Leader – the ABCs of Internal Motivation

July 23, 2018

By: John Sandahl

What do leading a team and raising a newborn have in common?

I’m a new father of a beautiful 7-month-old daughter, and she is already doing things and learning faster than I thought possible. As I watch her grow, I’m struck by how she, in her very baby way, is looking for the same things as the executives and leaders that I coach. Simply put, she (and everyone) wants:

Autonomy, Belonging, Competence (and Meaning)

The “ABCs” of internal motivation are universally true to the human experience and thinking about them as you’re serving your direct reports and teams can be of great value. I’ll talk in this post about the ABCs and save “Meaning” for the next post. 


If you’ve gone through the first six months with a baby recently, you know how quickly personality starts to show up. Already she’s got clear dislikes and likes. There’s a purple plastic spoon that is already a favorite toy – and a host of stuffed animals that were given to her which barely register a flicker of interest. She has a certain sense of how she wants things to be, and this desire for autonomy is growing with each new skill she picks up. I can already hear her demanding control of the remote as a teenager, and she’s not spoken her first word. We all like to have control of our lives and a sense that we can make our own choices and mistakes. 

When you’re working with your people, are you giving them a chance to make decisions? Have you found yourself directing them to do things the way you think they should be done to avoid problems down the road? Is this robbing them of a chance to have more creative control and autonomy? If the decision being made isn’t a bet-the-business kind, look to push decision making to others. Give autonomy to the people who are on the front lines and train them to learn from their mistakes.


My daughter is firmly entrenched between two loving parents and recently she’s started to pick up a sense of stranger danger. This is a biological developmental phase that gives many young children (6mos-2yrs) a sense that anyone other than their parent is to be feared. What’s interesting is that we as parents find this clinginess sort of endearing right now. It’s a way for her to show that she “belongs” to us. She’s a part of our family unit. As she grows there’s no doubt that this will shift to a more socialized sense of belonging and that she’ll have to rebel against us to become her own person. In the meantime, we’re enjoying the bonding. Humans need to belong and feel that warmth and safety, even at work.

How are you giving your people a sense that they belong and matter to you? Have you recognized them often enough and continued to celebrate their individual contributions long after you know they seem to not “need” it? Not everyone needs constant pats on the back, but just about everyone would benefit from being “seen” more often. Try this statement, “You are ______” and fill it in with WHO you see them BEING, not WHAT you see them DOING. (And then get quiet and listen to their response). The former has the more powerful impact of being seen vs. just feeling like a nice moment in time. “You are fierce” carries far more weight (a series of observations) than “you were a fierce negotiator in that meeting.”


My daughter is squarely in the needy mode right now as her most significant skill is sitting upright without assistance and directing everything she can into her mouth.  But it is interesting to notice how even with limited skills, she’s already looking to try and do new things despite failing constantly. Of course, what we see as failure looks like learning to her.  She watches us intently as we put spoons in our mouths, and her rubber baby spoon is a favorite toy as a result.  She imitates us as best she can with limited hand/eye coordination. When we try to take the spoon away from her at mealtimes, in order to feed her more effectively and efficiently, she gets fed, but also frustrated.

Ask yourself, are you giving your people a chance to grow their competence both individually and in the team setting? Your people are closely watching you for examples of how things are done and cues to what’s important and what isn’t.  Competence is grown as much from imitation as it is from pure experimentation.

And when your coworkers make mistakes, remember that failure and conversation are essential components to learning (and help with autonomy). Without a safe space to try out ideas and fumble around, we’re unlikely to really maximize our potential.

Admittedly, parenting a growing child is drastically different from leading adults in an organization. Treating your direct reports and colleagues as children is a recipe for disaster. No one likes to be talked down to. On the other hand, all adults (including you!) are on a developmental journey. If you’re not helping your people grow, you’re missing a huge opportunity. The ABCs of internal motivation show you how to meet the needs of your team and quickly assess issues of discontent by helping you answer the question, “What’s missing for him/her?”

By: John Sandahl

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