What Facebook Has Learned About Motivation in the Modern Workplace

“There isn’t a linear path anymore. We’re trying to teach our managers to deeply understand their people as individuals, so they can design customized careers.”
—Brynn Harrington, Director of People Growth at Facebook

In our most recent Creative Confidence Series chat, IDEO U Dean Suzanne Gibbs Howard sat down with Brynn Harrington, director of People Growth at Facebook, to discuss the question, what’s truly motivating to people in the modern workplace? They also explored the topics of a recent Harvard Business Review article Brynn co-authored: The 3 Things Employees Really Want: Career, Community, Cause.

More than half a century ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow came up with the hierarchy of needs, a pyramid that laid out what people want once basic needs, like safety, are met. At Facebook, the People team found that in the knowledge economy, Maslow’s hierarchy had become outdated. In economies where companies have moved beyond basic needs and are trying to provide everything—like the extreme work perks of Silicon Valley—it was time for a new pyramid.

So with help from the People Analytics team, and the results from surveys that Facebook gives to employees twice a year, Brynn and her colleagues created a new paradigm, a set of three buckets that represent the psychological contract — “the unwritten expectations and obligations between employers and employees.” The buckets are career, cause, and community.

Career: Give Your Team Autonomy & Focus on Strengths 
Having a job that provides autonomy, allows employees to use their strengths, and promotes learning and development

“People being in jobs that they enjoy and really want to do is the single most important thing when it comes to performance, engagement, and retention” Brynn says. That means helping people find jobs that play to their strengths, match their passions, and impact the business -- and having managers who can help employees figure out what might be next as they evolve along their journey. “There isn’t a linear path anymore,” Brynn says. “We’re trying to teach our managers to deeply understand their people as individuals, so they can design customized careers.”

At Facebook, that starts during the hiring process, where they work to screen for people’s strengths. One of their classic hiring questions is, “Tell me about the best day you’ve had at work. What did you do? Did you code or present something? Write? Work by yourself or in a group?” Then, in the intake conversation, managers sit down with new hires and ask questions like, “What do you want to get out of this job? What do you want to learn in this job? How can I specifically help you?” “These sound really basic, but we’ve learned that it’s not intuitive for managers to start there and go deep right away,” Brynn says.

One particularly interesting thing that Facebook does is build opportunities for people to develop careers on both manager and individual contributor paths. At most companies, the way to get promoted is to become a manager. But at Facebook, Brynn says, they know that being good at your individual job doesn’t necessarily make you a good manager. “Management should be something you actually want to do,” Brynn says. “Something you’re good at. Some people are brilliant as individuals, but they don’t want to manage people. How can we create the conditions where people advance as individuals?”


“People being in jobs they really want to do is the single most important thing when it comes to productivity, performance, retention, and engagement.”
Brynn Harrington


Cause: Find Connection Between Company & Personal Purpose
Feeling that you make an impact, identifying with the organization’s mission, and believing that it does some good in the world

When Facebook makes new hires, they’re looking for an alignment between personal values and company values. “We think about purpose on a couple levels,” Brynn says. “Are people on board with Facebook as a company? Do they believe in the power of community and want to bring the world closer together?” They don’t expect that everyone will achieve purpose in the same way, so the company tries to make sure that employees have the space to achieve what they need, and to create safe environments that help teams align. Part of that is making sure that teams have the tools and autonomy to work the way they need to. “In the spirit of, ‘this is now your company,’ we’re putting the accountability on everyone on the team to really think through, ‘Am I personally aligned with this, or what changes do I need to make?’” Some teams have started using vision statements to lay out their purpose and what they want to accomplish. Others have started their own traditions, like “No-Meeting Wednesday,” that let them get more work done.


“We’ve had a long culture of ownership. This comes with being a startup. Everyone is an owner of the company. We’ve tried to hang on to that even as we’ve grown.”
Brynn Harrington


Community: Create a Sense of Belonging
Feeling respected, cared about, and recognized

A big part of community is making sure that employees feel they have a place at the company. “We’re asking regularly how people are feeling on things like a sense of belonging,” Brynn says. “Do they feel like they have a sense of support? Do they feel like they can be themselves at work? And we’re trying to build better resources to make sure that people have a sense of community in a way that works for them.”

Diversity and inclusion are also important, and Facebook is working to create a culture of support, and to help people communicate better with each other. Instead of say, telling a coworker their idea is a bad one, they’re encouraging people to have conversations, and ask if they’ve considered other options. The goal is to make sure that people don’t feel shut down.

Because Facebook’s eponymous product is about bringing people together and creating community, the company has also focused on inviting people who connect on Facebook into its offices. “This is probably the deepest way we can reinforce Facebook’s purpose, by bringing in people who are using the product in different ways,” Brynn says. “Bringing those outside people in to make the product feel tangible and real is one of the most powerful things we can do.”


Want to focus on your individual, team, and company purpose? Join our Power of Purpose class and work to define and articulate a meaningful purpose and bring it to life beyond slogans and posters.

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