Peak Experiences


In or outside the office, micro-experiences are abundant. Our average workday includes dozens of these positive, neutral, and negative incidents that cumulatively affect how we perceive our jobs, colleagues, and organizations. On the other hand, peak experiences—the bigger, more impactful events that build lasting connections—are all too rare. (Most employees are lucky if they have one per month.) This year we look closely at how fulfilling the universal employee needs of autonomy, mastery, and connection can increase the frequency of peak experiences. Leaders should watch for opportunities to link and leverage these three essentials. Those who do will have an excellent view from the top of their industries.

7.5% increased likelihood of improving the employee experience when an organization meets the needs of autonomy connection, and mastery


The post-pandemic business landscape has forced organizations to rethink how, when, and where employees should work. New expectations are producing alternative work models and practices at an increasingly rapid pace. As employers deliberate how best to respond to changing workplace expectations, the potential for organizational disruption is high—and so is the risk to employee experiences and underlying workplace cultures.

The employee experience is a combination of everyday micro-experiences and stand-out macro-experiences, both of which play key roles in shaping an individual’s connection to their work, colleagues, and organization. Our 2020 Global Culture Report mapped the impact micro- and macro-experiences have on workplace culture, as well as how micro-experiences align with culture-defining Talent Magnets. This year, our research looks deeper into the mechanics of macro-experiences and the factors that influence these powerful interactions.

Macro-experiences can be positive or negative—those peaks and valleys—that profoundly affect the overall employee experience. These are the extraordinary events that do more to determine how a person feels about their work than anything else. On the positive side of the equation, peak moments involve deep, affirmative emotions that elevate an employee’s connection to purpose, accomplishment, and one another. They also have a longer-lasting impact than negative (valley) macro-experiences, and they make a dramatic difference in the overall employee experience when they occur regularly.1 In the rapidly changing workplace, peak experiences are crucial to strengthening culture and helping employees thrive.

So, how can leaders create these transformative peak experiences for their people? It starts with understanding the psychological needs employees have for autonomy, connection, and mastery.


Organizational psychology has established that we all have an innate drive toward growth and wellbeing. In the workplace, this drive manifests itself in motivations that shape employee behaviors and draw individuals to purpose, people, and projects that involve at least one of three basic needs:2

• Autonomy
• Connection
• Mastery

The way employers meet these needs affects how employees view their work and the organization. Our research finds that satisfying these needs produces a strong, positive emotional response that supercharges employees’ perceptions. Conversely, when a need is unmet, the opposite occurs—employee perception is negative and deflated. Fulfilling these needs also improves how people see themselves and determine their value in the workplace.

Satisfying employee needs produces a strong, positive emotional response that supercharges employees’ perceptions.

Our findings confirm that employees are drawn to work that promises a degree of ownership, a sense of belonging, and a chance to exercise their skills in a way that makes a meaningful contribution to the success of their teams and organization. When organizations build a culture that fulfills these promises with the right combination of modern leadership, opportunity, and resources, employee needs are satisfied, and everyday experiences can become peak experiences.

“Those three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.”



Our model of micro- and macro-experiences helps organizations identify specific types of employee experiences, as well as their impact. The premise: an average workday contains many experiences, and to make sense of them all, our brains group them into peak experiences (positive) or valley experiences (negative). The sum of these experiences tells the story of the accomplishments and struggles of an employee’s career.

This model offers an external view of an experience as it happens: the strength or magnitude of the impact—whether it’s a micro- or macro-experience—and whether the experience registers as positive or negative.

Visual representation of employees' external responses to micro and macro experiences

Employees’ external responses to micro- and macro-experiences.

When we add a map of the internal process of how needs are satisfied, a more holistic representation of peak employee experiences emerges.

To one degree or another, everyone in the workplace seeks to satisfy a basic psychological need. Sometimes the need is met by unexpected experiences—an act of recognition or an opportunity to lead an important project. Other times, employees benefit from planned experiences via engaged leadership, or they actively seek out experiences to satisfy one or more of their needs. In all cases, our qualitative research demonstrates how the powerful emotional response that defines a peak experience occurs when an interaction exceeds the ordinary and connects an individual to a deep-seated need for autonomy, connection, or mastery.

Autonomy, connection, mastery

Peak experiences satisfy an internal need and create a powerful, positive emotional response.


Four years ago, our research identified six essential elements of workplace culture that are crucial to an employee’s decision to join, engage with, and stay at any place of work. We call them Talent Magnets because they attract and connect people to their teams and organizations. They include purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, leadership, and wellbeing. Top-performing organizations excel in all Talent Magnets, which can also dramatically impact need satisfaction.

When organizations satisfy these three basic psychological needs, several outcomes increase significantly. For example, employees who feel a strong sense of ownership in their work, a closer connection to others, and a sense of achievement and expertise in their roles are more likely to do their best work, say they work in a thriving culture, and be Promoters on the eNPS scale.


Employee recognition and modern leadership both help satisfy the needs for autonomy, connection, and mastery. Specifically, recognizing employees acknowledges ownership of work; directly connects employee contributions to a purpose, their teams, and their leader; and highlights their achievements. When integrated into the organization’s culture, recognition also increases the frequency of peak employee experiences.

Statistically speaking, employee recognition increases the likelihood of autonomy satisfaction by 225%, connection satisfaction by 209%, and mastery satisfaction by 201%.

Furthermore, our research shows that modern leadership is the foundation for meaningful employee experiences. Modern leaders who act as mentors, advocate for employee development, and connect employees to meaningful opportunities help employees (and themselves) feel a greater sense of purpose, accomplishment, and connection to each other.

When modern leaders connect employees to accomplishment and the organization’s purpose, they address the basic needs for autonomy (158% increased odds of satisfaction) and mastery (120% increased odds of satisfaction). Likewise, helping employees feel attached to one another helps satisfy the basic need for connection (170% increased odds).

“Control leads to compliance. Autonomy leads to engagement.”

Connecting employees to purpose, accomplishment, and one another is key for leaders to create connections for employees

The three key connections leaders create for employees.



Here are three practical steps to help connect employee needs to peak experiences and achieve powerful outcomes:

1.  Focus on the key elements of workplace culture

Organizations can dramatically increase employee need satisfaction by creating experiences that align with the six Talent Magnets (purpose, opportunity, success, appreciation, wellbeing, and leadership).

Emphasizing how employees fulfill the organization’s purpose and make a difference satisfies the need for connection and mastery. Providing opportunity—whether that’s working on special projects or expanding skills—and helping employees achieve success will satisfy the needs for autonomy and mastery. Showing appreciation and investing in wellbeing build connection, and recognizing great work meets the need for mastery. Modern leadership addresses all three employee needs.

Using the Talent Magnets to create employee experiences is an effective way to continuously satisfy needs and build a positive workplace culture. When employee needs are met and they have positive experiences associated with the Talent Magnets, the impact on the employee (odds of doing great work) and the organization (odds of having high employee Net Promoter Scores) is profound:

2.  Integrate recognition to satisfy employee needs

Recognition can help meet the three basic needs of autonomy, connection, and mastery, but it must be an integrated part of the organization’s culture.

Enable and encourage all employees to use recognition frequently enough that it becomes a natural, everyday work experience. When recognition is common throughout the culture, the likelihood of achieving higher connection satisfaction increases 131% and the odds of higher mastery satisfaction improve 127%.

Implement programs that recognize both large and small efforts. And, continually improve your recognition technology to make it as frictionless as possible. Organizations that routinely implement new programs and technologies to recognize great work raise the probability of higher connection satisfaction by 130% and increase the likelihood of higher mastery satisfaction by 122%.

Train leaders to understand employees’ recognition preferences and personalize recognition moments. When leaders do this, the odds of higher autonomy satisfaction improve 126% and the chances of higher connection satisfaction jump 145%.

Make recognition public and share employee accomplishments across the organization. By definition, integrated recognition is frequent, public, meaningful, and far more likely to become peak experiences.



3.  Provide modern leadership

Modern leaders connect their people to purpose, accomplishment, and one another, which strongly answers all three basic needs.

So, help train leaders to connect employees’ work to a larger purpose and show how their contributions matter. Leaders should champion their employees’ successes and recognize accomplishments. Those who advocate for employee development increase the likelihood of satisfying autonomy needs by 115%, connection needs by 124%, and mastery needs by 131%.

Likewise, encourage leaders to mentor and help their employees network and build connections with others across the organization. When leaders introduce employees to mentors, the odds of satisfying connection needs improve 132%.

Shared leadership and frequent one-to-one meetings are additional ways to satisfy needs for autonomy, connection, and mastery.


Organizations should rethink the employee experience in the new workplace and identify ways to create lasting peak experiences.

The three basic employee needs—autonomy, connection, and mastery—must be met to create peak experiences.

Recognition and modern leadership are powerful ways to satisfy all three basic needs.

Creating peak experiences leads to a thriving workplace culture.

Peak Experiences Sources

  1. 2020 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
  2. “How self determination and goals boost motivation: An evidence-based management approach,” Dr. Markus Nini, CQ Net, August 9, 2019.
  3. “If You Love Your Employees, Set Them Free: Autonomy Is Key to Employee Engagement,” Stan Phelps, Forbes, September 24, 2019.
  4. UK Healthcare at the University of Kentucky Case Study, O.C. Tanner, 2019.
  5. “3 Companies with Great Mentoring Programs and Why You Should Have One Too,” Jacob Morgan, Medium, September 25, 2020.


Ritz-Carlton is known for exceptional service, but extraordinary experiences extend to employees as well. The company gives employees the “freedom to delight” with up to $2,000 to spend on each guest per day. As a result, this autonomy to wow guests builds trust between employees and the organization.

According to a senior executive, “Employee empowerment means being able to use my natural ability to create a lasting memory for guests or resolve a guest issue and have the confidence that my company supports me 100% in my effort. Sometimes the most delightful ‘wow’ moments happen in the blink of an eye. If employees are not empowered and need to cross layers of approval, these moments could be lost forever.”3


Understanding employee needs for autonomy, connection, and mastery allows organizations to create more opportunities for peak experiences. What might this look like in practice?

Picture a director recently assigned to oversee a team of engineers struggling with performance. While the engineers are all technically competent, they seem generally disconnected from each other and have no vision beyond their immediate issues. Collaboration is low, they show signs of burnout, and they haven’t made much progress in their careers. Fortunately, what the director sees is a group of promising professionals trapped in a cycle of negative micro-experiences punctuated by more valley than peak moments. She can identify the experiences they’re having and the negative impact of those moments. Now she needs to see what’s going on underneath.

She starts by implementing regular one-to-ones with all her team members. She actively listens, gets to know their needs, their concerns, and their ambitions. Based on what she learns, she encourages some individuals to lead special projects. She mentors others to develop new skills and opportunities, and she challenges everyone to stretch their professional abilities. She also makes recognition a key part of their team dynamic, ensuring acts of appreciation are given, received, and regularly observed for both major accomplishments and everyday wins. Over time, the connections between teammates grow stronger, great work appears more often, and peak experiences replace valley moments. The team is transformed because the director understands that satisfying individual needs can produce the peak experiences that connect employees to purpose, accomplishment, and one another.


University of Kentucky Healthcare (UKHC) revamped its entire recognition strategy so it could have one integrated recognition program instead of inconsistent pockets. Using a mobile app that ensures recognition is accessible and frequent, the new program streamlines recognition across the enterprise and allows leaders and employees to recognize those who go above and beyond—on everything from large accomplishments to smaller successful efforts—as well as employee milestones.

Because of the new program, 91% of employees understand how they contribute to the success of UKHC, 81% feel a strong sense of pride in the organization, and 90% want to stay.

“When you think about overall culture, there are key elements. Appreciation is one of those key elements in building a strong culture. It’s leadership—giving opportunities to employees, making them feel successful—and appreciation,” says Crystal Gabbard, Employee Engagement Manager.4


The mentoring program at GE pairs senior leaders with employees from all levels for shared learning. In addition to teaching skills, the program promotes building real, human connections, and encourages employee development, collaboration, and growth. This not only gives employees tools to succeed, but it creates a pipeline of future mentors and leaders for the company as well.

GE also helps employees network and connect with peers through reverse mentoring, employee resource groups, and opportunities to build leadership skills with a two-year rotational program in sales and marketing.

These initiatives meet employees’ needs for autonomy, mastery, and connection.5

By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.