How do you motivate high-achieving professionals in professional services firms? It might seem like a strange question given the high performance of the individuals concerned.
However, understanding what motivates high performers is critical in, well, keeping them that way. Understanding personal drivers also helps guide leaders on what not to do because some long-standing practices, however well-intentioned, continue to demotivate and blunt achievement.
Theories about motivation are by nature generalisations. These generalisations are useful for creating policies, however there is danger in accepting and adopting these theories in people management without considering the individual.
Our picture of high performance continues to develop as psychology and neuroscience provide new insights into the nature of motivation. We also appreciate that motivation is not consistently maintained and that every professional will, from time-to-time for professional or personal reasons, experience a drop in motivation. That is why it is important that leaders understand how to motivate individuals and support them through the tougher times.
A person-centric approach will always be the best way to understand and motivate an individual. There are a range of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational tools that professional services firm leaders may use to engage professionals.The trickier task is in applying these ideas at an individual level.
Understanding the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
Intrinsic motivation is where satisfaction is derived from the completion of the task itself, not by some consequence of that task being achieved.
Extrinsic motivation is where a task is completed because there is a consequence, such as a reward. Intrinsic motivation is the more powerful of the two, and firms should consider both when it comes to contribution and compensation.
In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink argues that intrinsic motivation is critical for those who do complex or creative work.While routine tasks become automated, the future of workplaces and the professions lies in non-routine, creative activities. He sets out three elements for intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose.Instinctively, these elements will resonate with high performers in professional firms. At a headline level:
Autonomy means operating with volition and choice.  Firms need to find the right balance in this space in terms of institutional directives. A firm that can provide professionals with strategic clarity is more likely to see autonomy follow. Similarly, a firm that can provide clarity about its values is more likely to see autonomy follow. In contrast, a firm that seeks to micro-manage is more likely to see demotivation follow.
Mastery is the desire to personally improve at something that matters. To be committed to mastery requires both confidence and humility.Where once it may have been unthinkable to express vulnerability and ignorance, we now recognise this self-awareness as a sign of real and underlying confidence. Key tools in this space include self-reflective practice, structured debriefs and after-action reviews.
Purpose is the sense that we exist for a reason. It helps explain why we are motivated to do certain things and why we sometimes struggle to find motivation. We call this ‘the why’. In our experience, many firms struggle to articulate their ‘why’. While profit may be a purpose, the distinction between profit-sharing partners and non-profit sharing employees means profit cannot be a force that unifies the whole firm. Conversely, finding purpose through great strategy can be highly motivating. Other strong purpose motivators include pursuing a legacy and undertaking community engagement and ESG activities.
Most firms are trying to build a culture and reputation that stands for something and is reflected in a partnership ethos. That culture and reputation should be an intrinsic motivating force for high-performing professionals.
The most obvious extrinsic motivator is remuneration. The financialised nature of professional service firms, including published profit per equity partner tables (however inaccurate), gives compensation particular prominence in professional services firms.
There is a common perception that if firms do not pay partners and other high performers enough, they may leave. There are two problems with this perception.
First, equity partners are not employed, so compensation is not given to them in exchange for service to the partnership – instead, equity partners’ profit shares rise and fall with the successes of the firm created with other partners.
Second, what is ‘enough’ will depend on an individual’s perception of their worth relative to their peers, both within their own firm and in competitor firms. Once compensation satisfies this fairness baseline, money is no longer a primary motivator – or at least it offers only marginal advantage. 
In contrast, there is ample evidence that a culture of recognition increases motivation and performance. In the Harvard BusinessReview article, “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Kindness at Work”, the authors highlight findings from research projects into kindness at work, including that:  praise and recognition boost the feedback recipient’s self-esteem, self-image, fulfilment and positivity, and the giver of praise and recognition may benefit even more than the recipient, by becoming connected to social purpose beyond themselves.
Formal reviews, regular check-ins, peer feedback and after-action reviews that recognise contribution are important parts of the recognition picture. So too is leader recognition of the efforts of partners and employees. Importantly, this recognition needs to go to all areas of contribution, not just successful pursuit or deal teams. Recognition can be an immensely powerful extrinsic motivator for achievement-orientated professionals.
While it is always critical to see people as individuals, many professionals share a high-achievement orientation. They enjoy achieving and they like to be recognised for their achievement. Authors Thomas DeLong, John Gabarro and Robert Lees  describe the nine aspects of this need for achievement as:
- having challenging tasks
- competing – striving to be number one
- achieving task closure
- setting goals and then meeting them
- getting clear, timely and actionable feedback
- being able to calibrate own performance
- having autonomy
- having control over task parameters, and
- taking calculated risks.
By understanding these motivating factors, it becomes easy to see how some firm activities intrinsically or extrinsically motivate while others have the opposite effect.
DeLong, Gabarro and Lees identify two other significant needs: the need for affiliation and the need for power. The need for affiliation relates to interaction and connection with others: it involves building rapport and relationships. The need for power relates to the desire to influence and lead. Partners and other professionals motivated by these needs may fulfil important roles in the collaborative life of the firm.
We explore these concepts in more depth in Chapter 10 of our book The Partner Remuneration Handbook: A guide to compensation in law and other professional service firms. You can buy a copy of the book here.
 Daniel H Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Canongate, 2018), p27.
 Timothy A Judge, Ronald F Piccolo,Nathan P Podsakoff, John C Shaw and Bruce L Rich, “The relationship between pay and job satisfaction: A meta-analysis of the literature”, 77 Journal of Vocational Behavior 2, (2010), 157–167, cited in Shawn Achor, “The Benefits ofPeer-to-Peer Praise at Work”, Harvard Business Review (24 April 2017)https://hbr.org/2016/02/the-benefits-of-peer-to-peer-praise-at-work.
 Ovul Sezer, Kelly Nault and Nadav Klein, “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Kindness at Work”, Harvard BusinessReview (7 May 2021), p2, https://hbr.org/2021/05/dont-underestimate-the-power-of-kindness-at-work.
Tom J DeLong, John J Gabarro and Robert J Lees, WhenProfessionals Have to Lead: A New Model for HighPerformance (Harvard Business Review Press, 2007), p148.