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Mission driven bureaucrats: Why support intrinsic motivation in developmental leadership?

24 March 2022

Developmental leadership requires motivated individuals with the values and interest to push for change, and the right set of conditions to build, transform and support institutions to make that change happen. So how can leaders best motivate their teams? In this guest blog, Dan Honig shares his thinking.

In development work, the “implementation gap” is an often-discussed problem. This describes the gap between forming policy well and actually delivering it successfully to the people whose welfare will be affected. Often, the solution proposed is to drive bureaucratic workers in the right direction with more targets, more monitoring and pay incentives for performance. This corresponds to what social psychologist Douglas McGregor called a Theory X approach of management in his pioneering work on organisational management. However, bureaucracy is complicated, and not all elements of bureaucratic performance lend themselves to quantifiable monitoring. Creating incentives for bureaucrats to perform well at certain aspects of their job, but not at those which are harder to monitor, has the potential to encourage them to neglect some important elements of the job.

An alternative is a “Route Y” approach – reforms which aim to improve performance by drawing on the employee’s desire to do a good job and help others. “Route Y” approaches will usually attempt to create a highly motivational environment that gives employees autonomy and trust. Better environments for “Route Y” approaches are those with greater need for delegation and local knowledge, where the selection process already selects well for the mission-aligned and where accurate performance monitoring is difficult. “Route Y” assumes that many employees are, or can become, “mission-driven bureaucrats” – bureaucrats whose intrinsic motivation is closely aligned to the goals of the organisation. In this blog, we discuss some of the evidence for the use of “Route Y” approaches.

Conventional wisdom says that if we see a bureaucrat not doing work we should assume we are looking at a “bad”, unmotivated bureaucrat, when in fact we may be looking simply at a demotivated bureaucrat, the creation of a management environment that demotivates. Higher levels of autonomy are associated with higher levels of intrinsic motivation. We may be able to increase motivation and performance by thinking about what those bureaucrats want and what would help them do a good job.

The problem with “Route X”

When those who are most passionate about their work become trapped by rules and penalties into overly rigid systems that reward the appearance of compliance at the expense of allowing people to make a difference, the most passionate and motivated bureaucrats are the first to quit. Management practice is more strongly correlated with intent to leave a frustrating workplace for the intrinsically motivated than the non-intrinsically motivated. When employees feel powerless, or that their work is meaningless to clients or society, they experience “policy alienation”, which leads to reduced motivation, effort, and effectiveness.

Management practices can improve motivation by making work feel or be more meaningful. This could mean encouraging public servants to meet the beneficiaries of their work, or even just making it clearer how an individual’s efforts impact welfare. How managers actually treat their employees is also important. Managers should give their staff respect, a sense of agency, and the ability to contribute meaningful work towards things they care about. Excessive managerial monitoring combined with the constant threat of punishment for perceived poor performance, for example, can be harmful to intrinsic motivation.


Muhammad Yasir Khan’s recent randomized control trial in Pakistan illustrates these principles. Researchers offered some health workers performance-linked financial incentives for increasing home visits (“Route X”), and met with others three times to discuss why they were there and what the impetus of the role was (“Route Y”). The “Route Y” approach was more effective in improving child health outcomes than the “Route X” approach. The “Route X” approach achieved its goal; offering financial incentives for health workers to carry out more home visits did lead to more home visits. However, promoting child health requires much more than just showing up; and the “Route Y” approach of increasing health worker motivation leads them to put more effort into other things which contribute to child health outcomes but would be hard to monitor and incentivize, such as the quality of the health checks performed and success in educating parents about how to prevent disease.

A different example can be found in Thailand. Thailand has had slow and steady improvements on most development measures for the last sixty years, in spite of a number of coups and radical changes in political orientation. Much of this can be explained by the effective working of Thai district officers. District officers usually report directly to Bangkok, whose officials are likely to be distant from the needs of individual districts. This has led to Thai district officials having huge autonomy, and very high figures for employee satisfaction, as found in surveys and interviews across districts and provinces. District officials report often following the letter of an instruction from Bangkok but not the spirit.

Which method for which situation?

Top-down “Route X” models tend to put a lot of faith in people at the top of the organisation, making them responsible for not only the monitoring of lower bureaucrats but also deciding by what metrics performance is measured in the first place. Yet both in democracies and other forms of government, we sometimes have politicians who aren’t interested in the public good.

“Route Y” is by no means a universal prescription for all ailments. While “Route X” reforms often have marginal gains but not systems transformation – this is not to suggest that there are never situations where “Route X” reforms can be effective catalysts for greater systems change. Whether a “Route Y” approach will work depends on whether it has or can have (by recruitment or motivating existing employees) mission driven bureaucrats. “Route Y” solutions are also unlikely to produce quick wins.


Overall, it is important for development policy to think more about managing for mission. Controls and constraints may indeed constrain bad bureaucrats, but there is a two-sided impact to “Route X” and it can also constrain – and drive out – the intrinsically motivated. Instead, we should perhaps think more about recruiting the mission-driven in the first place, and how this can be achieved. Mission driven bureaucrats may also be more drawn to places that already have “Route Y” cultures. Better performance often happens with less control. Contrary conventional wisdom, we may often improve performance by relaxing, not adding, controls and monitoring.

This blog is based on the talk “Mission Driven Bureaucrats” by Dan Honig, delivered as part of the International Development Department (IDD)’s guest seminar series at University of Birmingham. You can view the full talk recording here.

You can read about Dan Honig’s work on his website, or check out his new paper “Managing for Motivation as Public Performance Improvement Strategy in Education & Far Beyond“.

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