Did you know Kung-fu is not a martial art? Kung-fu comes from the Chinese word Gung-fu and actually means work + merit and is more akin to the word “mastery”. Thus rendering Jackie Chan’s famous quote, “Everything is Kung-fu” a lot more meaningful.

No time to read? Here’s a 20 second summary:

Mastery is the pursuit of excellence. It’s good for your team, improves their productivity, results and business outcomes. It helps people feel internally motivated and drives them to do better.

But they aren’t going to get there, if their line managers (immediate supervisors) aren’t actively driving it. Get your managers onboard and help them motivate their team members through opportunities to grow and improve.

This will mean managers become coaches. They celebrate success, guide without lecturing, support continuous learning, manage their time and priorities, boost productivity and make work more enjoyable.

This blog post is about how to encourage Kung-Fu a.k.a mastery at work and build internally motivated teams.

What is mastery? And why should I care?

Let’s begin with why you should care.

In the late 70s, two psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan debunked the idea that people were only motivated by external factors (like rewards). They came up with the Self Determination Theory (SDT). The theory that the best quality of motivation was one that came from within – Intrinsic motivation (Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior).

It’s not that external rewards like grades for schoolwork/ incentives for sales don’t work. It’s finding when to use which, to what extent and finding a way to motivate performance from within.

Deci and Ryan write, “The critical distinction for us is autonomous versus controlled motivation.”

We’re interested in what we would call high-quality motivation, when people can be wholeheartedly engaged in something and really can have both their best experience and their best performance. We’ve always been interested in factors that facilitate or undermine that motivation, and in investigating that, we came on the idea that there are some really basic psychological needs that everybody has, whether they’re in the classroom, workplace, or sports field, that help them thrive and have their highest quality motivation. Those basic psychological needs are autonomy, competence and relatedness. That’s the theory in a nutshell.”

Author Daniel Pink later described the three pillars of motivation in the modern world of work as Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Mastery is competence. It is skill or knowledge that makes one a master of a subject or skill. The pursuit of mastery is the pursuit of excellence.

archery - mastery

If you’re looking to motivate your teams internally, get them excited about what they do, enthused to do their best, then you need to create an environment that supports mastery.

Isn't mastery a C-Suite level / leadership thing?

No. Mastery is for all levels of hierarchy and more so for frontline workers like sales reps. Your frontline workers interact directly with customers every day. Ensuring they do their job with excellence means satisfied customers.

For a sales rep this could mean mastering the skill of communicating value in under 30 seconds, or consistently building a pipeline every single day. These skills can be taught and mastered.

Give me 5 reasons I should promote mastery?

Management isn’t about walking around and seeing if people are in their offices, it’s about creating conditions for people to do their best work, writes Daniel Pink in Drive: The Surprising Secret of What motivates us.

Creating conditions that trigger your sales team’s internal motivations will them to excel and do their best work.

1. It’s more motivating than carrots and sticks

Management often relies on carrots (rewards for compliance) and sticks (punishment for deviance). The understanding is if you want more of some behavior, reward it. If you want less of it to occur, punish the offenders. This is called extrinsic motivation. And though it appears to make sense, in the modern day workplace it is useful in certain cases, and harmful in some. Studies have shown that in some cases incentives may hamper productivity, creativity and employee satisfaction.

What is far more motivating is leaning into the intrinsic motivations of a person. This would mean that your team works hard and well because they enjoy it. Mastery is a key component of triggering this intrinsic motivation.

2.You get better results

Mastery is a complex neurological process. When a person performs an action for the first time, or first few times, they use the pre-frontal cortex, or the decision-making part of their brain. As they get adept at it, new connections are made in the brain (neuroplasticity). Now the brain activity moves to another region, such as the basal ganglia – the part associated with habits. The activity is now performed with ease, such that it is almost automatic.

One of the best examples of this can be seen in sports. Arguably the most accurate shooter in the NBA is Steph Curry. He logs 500 baskets in every training session. [Watch: 3 million shots to make 3000]

3. Teams are more satisfied at work (read engaged)

Engaged teams don’t just show up, they are invested in what they do and strive to do better. Continuous learning at work — the ongoing pursuit to improve skill and knowledge boosts employee engagement.

When sales reps are encouraged to learn and develop, they feel more valued. This investment can lead to a deeper work commitment, elevated work ethic, and an overall boost in workplace morale. For instance, employees who are given opportunities to attend workshops or take courses related to their field often feel a renewed sense of purpose and engagement in their daily tasks.

According to LinkedIn’s 2019 Workforce learning report, 94% of people say they would stay longer at a job if the company invested in their professional development.

People are most satisfied at work when they become good at what they do and are considered the experts, or the masters of their craft. It helped them feel valued and increases their engagement. One of the key findings of Deci and Ryan was that people are hard-wired to want to improve or grow. Developing this growth mindset in teams is key.

4. Productivity goes up

Going back to the neuroscience behind mastery – when a person masters a skill, they can do it quicker and with greater dexterity. Mastery not only reshapes the brain structure but also enhances its efficiency.

While sometimes referred to as muscle memory, consistent practice and skill involves something called myelin. Myelin insulates nerve fibers and increases the speed and efficiency of nerve impulses. “The more we practice a skill, the more myelin we produce around the neurons involved in that skill, making them communicate faster and better.”

Additionally, mastery can lead to the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, which provides feelings of pleasure and encourages continued engagement and learning. Consistent, challenging practice not only maintains the brain’s agility but also helps in adapting to new challenges swiftly.

Mastering a skill reduces the time it takes to complete tasks, and minimizes errors.

This is why a seasoned tel can be more productive than a novice, because of the number of hours of practice they have had at work.

Helping your team master the skills they need at work, will certainly improve their productivity and the quality of work they produce.

4. Teams need less management (read improved manager span of control)

Mastery also promotes autonomy.

Teams thrive when they are given autonomy over their work. This is why micromanagement is such a demotivating trait in a manager. Gallup’s State of the Workplace reports that people crave this autonomy at work – it is a crucial aspect of work culture that can make or break the way they feel about their work.

As an individual’s mastery over their skills goes up, the less supervision they need. These team members don’t just meet their targets, they actually understand its priority in terms of the organization’s objectives.

In fact, these team members will make better decisions on where they spend their time and effort. Managers of such sales reps can easily move into the role of a coach – simply stepping in to provide help or encouragement as needed.

Great stuff! How do I start?

Actually, if you’re a business leader, this isn’t in your hands. It’s actually in your managers’ hands. Your sales managers are your secret weapon. They have their teams trust more than you do. And they have more control over what their reps do each day. [A veteran pharma sales leader explains why]

Hence the saying, “People leave managers, not companies.”

You need to get your managers onboard with mastery and help them to create the culture that promotes employee skill development and cultivating excellence at work.

What you can do is support your managers.

Mastering a skill requires the freedom to learn/ask questions, opportunity for focus, regular feedback on performance, celebrating small wins, refresher training. [Read more about this]

This is a very different style of managing/supervising teams – compared to overseeing their work. This requires helping your supervisors and managers think and act like coaches to their teams.

Here are two ways you can support the change.

Support them through the change

The Default Bias / Status Quo bias means that they will automatically resist the change. Sharing with them the benefits of the new way of working is one way.

The other, more important aspect is ensuring that the new way of working does not mean more hours in the office for them. Support your team with the necessary tools (especially those with AI capabilities) so that they can spend less time on their reports and more time on their teams.

Demonstrate what you’re asking them to do

Lead by example. Use technology to coach your managers. Share feedback with them frequently, appreciate their efforts and guide them during crises moments, rather than give advice in hindsight. Your managers need to see what coaching looks like.


Read how this leading bank sales teams used worxogo Nudge Coach to build their sales reps mastery and improved their productivity.

Write to us. worxogo Nudge Coach can help.