The science of motivation
By LAY HSUAN, LIM
Human beings have a natural tendency to thrive and flourish, and make meaningful connection with others. Therefore, we don’t need to be motivated because we already are. The more relevant question to ask ourselves is why are we motivated, not if.
We have this preconceived idea that leaders should be held accountable to motivate people. What leaders should be doing is help their people find meaning, contribute to a social cause and experience healthy interpersonal relationships at work.
Junk food vs health food
In Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work, and What Does by Susan Fowler, the author presented the Spectrum of Motivation model, where we look at six motivational outlooks (see Table 1).
The suboptimal are considered motivational junk food which reflects low-quality motivation, while the optimal are motivational health food that reflects high-quality motivation.
When we entice people with tangible or intangible rewards (‘junk food’), we are only buying to their temporary compliance of high-performance. Over time, they are still unlikely to experience positive energy, vitality and sense of well-being.
We should instead be focused to feed ‘health food’ to sustain performance and gain long-term results. This is where one’s sense of developed values and purpose at work kicks in.
Human need for A-R-C
To understand the science behind human motivation, we need to understand the psychological needs of people for autonomy, relatedness and competence (A-R-C).
Autonomy is our need to know that we have choices and are in some control about the work we do. In other words, we know that we do have influence in the workplace. This doesn’t give managers the excuse to be hands-off any work responsibilities.
Relatedness is our need to be connected to others authentically and that we are contributing toward something greater than ourselves. So, a manager who puts pressure on his people to hit a certain sales target without regard to how it makes people feel will be seen as self-serving.
Competence is our need to feel effective at meeting our daily challenges whereby we feel a sense of growth. There is a high chance that people might be affected negatively if they don’t feel competent in what they do at work.
Say, as a writer for the career guide, I get to choose my own story angles, while connecting to others and be competent in what I do (i.e. my A-R-C fulfilled). As such, I will experience an aligned and integrated motivational outlooks in my work because there is a value and purpose in me writing people’s stories.
In this regard, I don’t need to be motivationally driven to look out for stories, as I will naturally do it on my own accord.
Techniques to self-regulation: M-V-P
In experiencing optimal motivation, we need a self-regulation mechanism to manage our workplace experiences. The vital techniques to self-regulation are mindfulness, values and purpose (M-V-P).
Mindfulness is being attuned to what is happening in the present moment without an automatic reaction. When we are not mindful, we often react with uncontrolled emotions like anger and frustration, while diminishing our A-R-C needs.
Our lack of mindfulness may result in one of the three suboptimal motivational outlooks – disinterested, external and imposed.
Values are enduring beliefs one has chosen to accept as a compass for how they work and live their lives.
We are familiar with organisational values, purpose and mission statement. At individual levels, do we take time to develop, clarify and operationalise our work-related values and purpose?
As leaders, have honest conversations with your employees to find alignment between their perception of their role-related values and purpose, before coming to conclusions that meet both your people’s needs and those of the organisation.
Shift of workplace beliefs
The following are some workplace beliefs that have long erode workplace motivation and influence processes, actions and undesirable leadership behaviours:
- “It’s not personal, it is just business.”
Employees probably spend more waking hours interacting with their peers and bosses in the workplace than anywhere else. So it must be an irony to think that a leader’s actions are not personal.
Whether you admit it or not, what you say and do as a leader feels personal to the people you lead!
Embrace the idea that all emotions are acceptable but not all behaviour is. Consider practising self-regulation by listening to your heart and acknowledging the role feelings play in your work. If it is business, it is personal.
- “The purpose of business is to make money.”
If you believe that making a profit is the purpose of business, notice how you are likely to focus on dashboard numbers instead of focusing on the people responsible for providing service to your clients.
What if the purpose of business is to serve?
The more developed your values and purpose are, the more they will influence how you live and make decisions daily. The nature of human motivation is not in making money, but in making meaning.
- “If you cannot measure it, it doesn’t matter.”
Most parents, when asked their hopes for their children, will hope for them to experience meaningful relationships, contribute to society, fulfill a noble purpose and discover what makes them happy. These are things that cannot be easily measured.
As with traditional and generational recipes, many are prepared with agak-agak (estimation) measurements. These food were mostly prepared with love, not for perfection, and taste just as good.
So, start reframing your belief: If you cannot measure it, it is probably really, really important.
Motivation is a skill. It is one of the most vital aspects of leadership and one of the most misunderstood one too.
Since motivating people doesn’t work, it is time to stop beating your people with carrots and sticks, and embrace more effective leadership strategies.
Remember that what you say, how you say it, and why you say it, makes a difference in the lives of the people you lead.
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Lay Hsuan was part of the content curation team for Leaderonomics.com, playing the role of a content gatekeeper as well as ensuring the integrity of stories that came in. She was an occasional writer for the team and was previously the caretaker for Leaderonomics social media channels. She is still happiest when you leave comments on the website, or subscribe to Leader’s Digest, or share Leaderonomics content on social media.