Organizations of Autotelic (internally driven) People

Gina Valenti is the VP of Brand Culture for Hampton.   She and her colleagues have heavily invested in building a positive culture. The key notion for employees is “Hamptonality Starts with ME!”

This is the kind of effort that a skeptic might question.   Yet there are many indicators that “Hamptonality” matters.  Gina shared one example with us.  She recently became aware of a blog post written by a celebrity guest named Mike Rowe (host of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs).   Mike was in the process of leaving a Hampton Inn so he could go jump out of airplane.  He noticed a man on a ladder working on pipes in the ceiling.   His name was Corey Mundle.   Mike introduced himself and asked Corey what he was doing.  The following story was written by Mike:

 “Well Mike, here’s the problem,” he said. “My pipe has a crack in it, and now my hot water is leaking into my laundry room. I’ve got to turn off my water, replace my old pipe, and get my new one installed before my customers notice there’s a problem.”

I asked if he needed a hand, and he told me the job wasn’t dirty enough. We laughed, and Corey asked if he could have a quick photo. I said sure, assuming he’d return the favor. He asked why I wanted a photo of him, and I said it was because I liked his choice of pronouns.

“I like the way you talk about your work,” I said. “It’s not, ‘the’ hot water, it’s ‘MY’ hot water. It’s not, ‘the’ laundry room, it’s ‘MY’ laundry room. It’s not ‘a’ new pipe, it’s ‘MY’ new pipe. Most people don’t talk like that about their work. Most people don’t own it.”

Corey shrugged and said, “This is not ‘a’ job; this is ‘MY’ job. I’m glad to have it, and I take pride in everything I do.”

He didn’t know it, but Corey’s words made my job a little easier that day. Because three hours later, when I was trying to work up the courage to leap out of a perfectly good airplane, I wasn’t thinking about pulling the ripcord on the parachute – I was thinking about pulling MY ripcord. On MY parachute.

I am reminded of a concept called autotelic personality.  The Greek roots are auto and telos.  Auto refers to self and telos refers to goal.  An autotelic person is internally driven.  They learn to find purpose in what they do and that effort brings meaning and growth.  Csikszentmihalyi makes the following observations about autotelic people:

An autotelic person needs few material possessions and little entertainment, comfort, power, or fame because so much of what he or she does is already rewarding.  Because such persons experience flow in work, in family life, when interacting with people, when eating, even when alone with nothing to do, they are less dependent on the external rewards that keep others motivated to go on with a life composed of dull and meaningless routines.  They are more autonomous and independent because they cannot be as easily manipulated with threats or rewards from the outside.  At the same time, they are more involved with everything around them because they are fully immersed in the current of life (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997: 117).

No one is completely autotelic.  There is a continuum.  At one end are people who seldom experience meaning in what they do, at the other end, are people who often experience meaning in what they do.  A positive organization attracts people to the latter end of the continuum.

With this idea in mind I think there are two points worth noting in Mike Rowe’s story.  First, Corey is fully immersed in his work.  It is not dull and meaningless but intrinsically motivating.  He seems to have an autotelic orientation.

Second, Mike is inspired by Corey and chooses to more fully identify with his own work.  This suggests that people can be influenced to become more autotelic.

The last point gives rise to two questions that are seldom considered.  First, how do we design organizations that increase the likelihood of autotelic experiences?  Second, how do we lead people in ways that increase the likelihood that they become more autotelic?  While skeptics may scoff at such questions, people like Gina spend their lives trying to answer these two questions.  As they do, they build positive organizations.


Who is the most autotelic person I know?

When have I been in an autotelic state?

How could we use this passage to become a more positive organization?


4 thoughts on “Organizations of Autotelic (internally driven) People

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