Four Nous staff having a conversation

Unleashing intrinsic motivation: How Nous enables its people to bring out the best in themselves

Our Thinking | insight



6 Minute Read


Share insight


When you think about your work environment, does it create the conditions for you to deliver exceptional performance? Does it give you the trust you need to achieve your goals at work and at home? Does it give you the feedback you need to develop your skills? Does it give you the data you need to know how you and your organisation are tracking?

Many organisations talk a big game about creating the right environment for great performance, but often fail to deliver. They may deliver a few appealing cosmetic elements – the latest Nespresso machine in the shiny communal kitchen, anyone? – but ignore the underlying elements that shape how much people enjoy their work and therefore perform at their best.

There is a wide array of conditions in the environment that can limit people’s ability to perform. Problems include a lack of trust, poor quality feedback, a failure to invest in developing capabilities, job insecurity, people being stuck in a poorly suited role and the absence of performance data. Thankfully few workplaces will have all these deficits, but many will have some of them.

Measurement of performance varies from role to role, so when we talk about performance, we are assessing how people track against the expectations of their position and how their work contributes to the success of the organisation.

When performance suffers, the impacts can be wide-ranging. Staff unable to achieve their potential are likely to be unhappy, and this can manifest itself in a slew of indicators that should ring alarm bells for any leader: high turnover, absenteeism, poor health (both mental and physical), low productivity and low morale, ultimately leading to a failure to meet business objectives and delight clients.

Nous’ distinctive approach is guided by our ethos

At Nous we regularly advise clients across Australia and the UK on how they can deliver great performance. In the spirit of sharing, we are keen to talk about what we do ourselves at Nous, so you can see how we put our advice into practice.

The Nous commitment to creating an environment conducive to great performance goes right back to the start, when Tim Orton founded Nous in early 1999. Tim wanted to work on issues important to a better society, collaborating with clients and colleagues he valued, all in a way that enabled him to live a full life at work and outside it.

For Tim, this meant doing away with elements of the work environment common at the time, and instead managing performance by unleashing intrinsic motivation. When Nous started, and in the 20 years since, we have developed a distinctive approach.

Our starting point is an assumption that people are good and want to be great performers. So rather than needing to coax, cajole or incentivise people to perform well, we seek to create an environment for them to realise their natural talent and enthusiasm. The evidence for the power of intrinsic motivation is well established. As a team of researchers in Norway found recently, “intrinsic motivation was uniformly associated with positive employee outcomes; extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, was negatively related or unrelated to positive outcomes.”

At Nous we often talk about things that are important to us: clients, trust, self-management, fairness and high performance. We believe that if you create the right conditions for the firm and people to flourish, both will do so. We trust Nousers to behave the right way instinctively, in line with our purpose and reasons for being. Over the years, the culture has become a defining feature of Nous and is nurtured by all Nousers, leading to strong behavioural norms and a sense of shared vision and passion.

Many levers can optimise intrinsic motivation

As desirable as these values are, they mean little if they are not put into practice. So, across everything we do at Nous, we look for ways we can operationalise these underlying philosophies so that we live and breathe them. These are our 10 Levers of Intrinsic Motivation. 

  1. Reasons for Being. Nous’ guide in all decisions is our Reasons for Being, a set of values around which we can all unite. These Reasons – positive influence, intellectual stimulation, energy and growth, care and connection, and revenue and profit – shape the way we interact with our clients and with each other. It is unsurprising that internal matters at Nous are often discussed in terms of these Reasons, which can help bring clarity and consensus on a possible course of action.
  2. Clear strategy. Developing an organisational strategy cannot be done in isolation from the people who need to deliver it. That is why Nous seeks input from all staff in preparing our major strategy document, a three-yearly plan. From online forums to in-person workshops, we work hard to get input from our whole team. The importance of well-communicated strategy and goals has been established by research – in high performance organisations 54 per cent of employees can easily refer to organisational goals when they need to, compared to just 24 per cent in low performance organisations.
  3. Recruitment. A strong intrinsic motivation is important to success at Nous, so we seek people that share our passion, curiosity and desire to have a positive influence. People that are attracted to Nous are driven by purpose and a desire to make things better for the collective, rather than purely by individual or financial gain. Our interview process is designed to assess both capability and motivations. We involve a range of Nousers, with different styles, personalities, professional experiences and backgrounds, in the interview process. This allows a two-way assessment.
  4. Performance and feedback. Honest conversations are essential to improving performance. That is why our twice-yearly review process gives every person in the organisation a chance to deliver feedback to all colleagues. Through in-person meetings for most employees, a Performance Coach for every Nouser can gather honest feedback to hold people accountable for their work and identify strengths and areas for improvement. The transparent and equitable process – a junior consultant can give feedback on the managing director if they wish – means that employees benefit from hearing honest appraisals from their colleagues in a way that may not be revealed in other forms of performance review. It also means that employees know they will be held to account for their performance throughout the year. In the latest round of Human Capital conversations more than 230 individual sessions were held across 11 days and more than 1,000 survey responses submitted.
  5. Professional development. Nous encourages everyone to learn and grow. It makes life interesting, generates new ideas and helps us deliver value for clients. We invest in in-house development opportunities across all levels and role types, and we provide financial support for external study (including up to $500 per instance without formal approval), where the development aligns with Nous’ business needs and individual development goals. Nous consultants across all levels on average spend over 90 hours per person annually on formal development or developing themselves. Our weekly Savvy Sessions offer bite-sized learning opportunities on a wide array of topics, delivered via an engaging video-conferencing system.
  6. Self-management. Autonomy at work is important for job satisfaction, so we have chosen to give our people opportunities for self-management. This means our consultants have greater authority over spending and work practices than at other organisations. They can organise their work priorities in a way that works for them, so long as they meet commitments to clients and colleagues. We expect Nous consultants to drive their performance, growth and employment experience, while also considering colleagues. You cannot always pick and choose what suits you. That’s not self-management, it’s self-indulgence!
  7. Information sharing and transparency. Nous employs people we trust, and then gives them the information they need to make good decisions. We have opted to be transparent in sharing much of our corporate information with staff, so they know how various parts of the business are tracking. This allows people to get an accurate idea of the organisation’s direction and minimises chances for misinformation to spread. We use an interactive performance dashboard, which elegantly communicates lots of detailed performance data. Throughout this process, the information of our clients is protected and shared only with the utmost discretion to those who need it.
  8. Flexibility. Working conventional hours from an office in the city centre suits some people, but there are plenty of others who find it does not fit their responsibilities outside of work. By supporting many modes of flexibility – including part-time work, remote work, flexible hours and career breaks – we have enjoyed benefits in morale and tenure. We have also gained access to a pool of workers who may have otherwise gone elsewhere. Last year we launched Felix, the Nous FlexiWork Savings Calculator, which quantifies the impact on the bottom line of flexible work practices. While we enable flexibility where possible, this must always be balanced with business need.
  9. Shared bonus. We rise together. That’s the philosophy behind the Nous group bonus, which means that bonuses are determined by the performance of the whole organisation rather than the performance of individuals. Staff can opt in to no bonus, a half-bonus or the full bonus, depending on how much of their pay they wish to put at risk, and the annual rate of the bonus is determined by financial performance. More than 80 per cent of Nousers have opted to participate. We have found that the group bonus encourages people to work collaboratively and share opportunities with their colleagues, rather than engaging in internal rivalries or empire building.
  10. Guidelines. We trust people’s judgement, so we keep formal policies to a minimum. Instead we rely on guidelines, so people can make decisions that fit their context. Avoiding micromanaging people’s behaviour means that procedures are easier to develop and simpler to understand, without an expectation that every circumstance will be covered from the outset. We operate with a high degree of trust and with fewer controls, so we let people run within limits and use their good judgement. We catch people when they go outside the boundaries rather than manage too tightly within the boundaries.

Organisations need to find motivations that are right for them

So what has been the outcome for Nous? We are pleased to report that the high performance of our people has enabled years of sustained growth, reflected in our expansion into new locations, our development of new capabilities and our stream of internal promotions.

On their own, each motivational approach would go some way toward establishing a workplace that delivers high performance, but their full benefit comes from their working in concert. But even that would not be enough without the values that underpin Nous and the people who we work with.

We know these techniques will not suit every organisation, but we have found them highly effective. Each of them is scalable, so they have supported our growth from a handful of people in an office in Melbourne to more than 400 people across Australia, the UK and Canada.

Unleashing intrinsic motivation offers huge potential for organisations seeking to achieve sustained improvement in their people’s performance.

Find out more about opportunities to join the Nous team on our Careers page.