Corporate hallways and lunchrooms are often festooned with “motivational” wall posters. The idea seems to be that clichés enhance comradeship and performance.
Military drill instructors scream at recruits, apparently assuming that insults and humiliation are inspiring.
Motivation can come from many sources.
A tyrannical manager may “motivate” people to work killer hours that ruin health and family life and actually jeopardize productivity.
Alternatively, a thoughtful leader can engage people’s heads, hearts and hopes in ways that “motivate” them to gladly invest their discretionary effort in advancing a common cause.
What really motivates people? Money? Time off? Recognition? Personal esteem? A feeling of being needed?
This whole notion of “motivation” deserves a fresh look. And that’s what we get from Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work, and What Does.
Susan is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies and a professor in the Executive Leadership program at the University of San Diego.
I visited with Susan and came away invigorated with some ideas you can use.
Rodger Dean Duncan: “Motivation” seems to be a frequent subject for workplace discussion, but it’s often at the superficial slogan level. You say people are always motivated—and that the question is not if they are motivated, but why. Please explain.
Susan Fowler: Motivation is at the heart of everything you do and everything you want to do but don’t. You are always motivated, but you may have a type of motivation that doesn’t generate the positive and sustainable energy required for behavior change or achieving your goals. Motivation science has validated six different types of motivation. Not all motivation is created equal. Some types are optimal—making it more likely for you to achieve your goals and flourish. Other types are suboptimal, making it a challenge to achieve your goals.
Duncan: You cite research that shows even though people will accept money or other rewards, the only correlation between incentives and performance is a negative one. Can you elaborate with an example of how that plays out in the workplace?
Fowler: People are motivated by external rewards—whether they are tangible such as money, or intangible such as power, status and image. However, these forms of motivation have been proven to undermine the three psychological needs required to thrive and generate the type of energy to sustain your efforts.
For example, if you are motivated by money, your psychological needs for autonomy/choice, relatedness/connection, and competence are compromised. Your motivation based on money tends to control you, rather than your feeling a sense of autonomy or choice. Your focus on money tends to distract you from meaningful alignment with espoused values, empathy with others, or a collaborative approach for the sake of the project or those involved with the project. Your money focus has you keeping your eye on the scoreboard of how much money you’re making rather than appreciating your growth and learning.
Even if you meet performance expectations in the short run, your money motivation will betray you in the long run. Studies show that even in the short run, your creativity, innovation, collaboration, and wellbeing are negatively influenced.
Research on money and motivation reveals that the reasons you want money also matter. If you’re working hard by choice to support values meaningful to you such as family, charities or health, your money focus is less erosive of your psychological needs than working hard for money as a means for gaining power, status, or image.
Duncan: Motivation, you say, is a skill—and people can learn to choose to create “motivational experiences” anytime and anyplace. What does this “look like” in terms of observable behavior?
Fowler: Since we are always having a “motivational experience,” I think it’s important to clarify that the skill of motivation can be learned to create optimally motivating experiences.
Using the skill of motivation “looks like” identifying the type of motivation you are currently experiencing, proactively shifting by asking yourself pivotal questions to create autonomy/choice, relatedness/connection, and competence, then reflecting on what’s become clear. When you are aware of your shift from suboptimal to optimal motivation, it feels so good that you want more of it. Unlike satiating biological needs that dissipate after you hydrate by drinking water or nourish your cells by eating, when you satisfy your psychological needs by creating autonomy/choice, relatedness/connection, and competence, you want to sustain it.
Duncan: What are two or three things a leader can do to influence people to choose a particular course of action?
Fowler: I encourage leaders to help people create choice, connection, and competence every day. For example, instead of just asking for a status report, they can ask—
- Tell me about the choices you made today/this week that you feel good about or wish you could do-over. Why? What are the different choices might you make tomorrow based on your insight?
- Did you have an experience or make a decision today/this week that you think reflected your values or the values of our organization? Of the tasks and goals you are working on, what do you find most meaningful? Why is that?
- What did you learn today/this week? How will what you’ve learned inform your work—or possibly someone else’s work—in the future?
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.