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Some Musings on Motivation

Posted by David Wight in Business Management, Leadership, Organizational Change, Team Building | 0 comments


I had a wrestling coach who once told me “You don’t have that much potential, but you can make up for it with hard work.” I’m still trying to figure out how that works. It was right after a match……despite being tired and sweaty, I remember thinking, “Huh?…Doesn’t potential kinda set the ceiling?”   The funny thing about this incident is that my coach was trying to encourage me; I shudder to think what he might have said otherwise. Luckily I had no illusions about my l wrestling capabilities; I’d always been somewhat of an over-achiever so the impact of his statement about my potential was minimal. I just loved the sport; it’s probably one of the most natural sports for a little boy growing up?

This was the same coach who, when learning that my parents were coming to a match said that he hoped having my parents there was not going to make me try harder. I still don’t get that one either. Wrestling is not a sport where you typically slack-off during a match. When the match in question was over, my forearms looked like Popeye, and they were so tired, I couldn’t make a fist with either hand. But what was the point of his comment anyway?….. as a coach, wouldn’t you want your wrestler to be as highly motivated as possible?

But enough about what not to do to have a positive impact on someone’s motivation

Some Common Misunderstandings About Human Motivation

Most of us like to play amateur psychologist, and that includes understanding what and how to motivate people.

Unfortunately this is the first place we go wrong because “Motivate” is not something you do to someone else. You could even make the argument that it shouldn’t be a verb. The drives, the needs, the values or the fears have to already exist to some degree within the person; the best you can do is hope to influence or actuate them. You cannot control another person’s behavior much less the reasons for their behavior. If you’re alive……you’re motivated. As long as your heart is beating and you’re still breathing, you’re motivated. Both are forms of human behavior. They’re just not as readily visible as what we usually think of as behavior, because in fact…. we don’t have to think about doing them. When someone labels another person as lazy or having “low motivation,” it just means that person isn’t engaging in some behavior as much as the labeler thinks they should. It doesn’t mean the person isn’t motivated or “lazy.” The child who won’t do his or her homework but instead spends all of their time playing video games may be highly motivated ……to play video games…just not to do their homework.

Influencing or impacting a person’s motivations is not the same as motivating them.   The drives, the needs, the values or the fears have to already exist to some degree within the person; the best you can do is hope to touch or actuate them…You can’t control another person’s behavior much less the reasons for their behavior. You can’t force someone to care about something they don’t care about!

Another common misunderstanding is our tendency to think in terms of “one cause or motivator for one behavior.” Humans are much more complex than that. Freud was one of the first psychologists to recognize this with his concept of overdetermination. It simply means that one action or behavior can and often does have multiple causes, and without in-depth knowledge of a person’s background, it’s very difficult to understand how all of the causal threads come together to result in that one behavior. Even most people don’t consciously understand their own sources of motivation in its entirety. Research indicates that we make upwards of 90-95% of our decisions unconsciously. If we had to make a conscious decision for every breath we took, it wouldn’t leave a lot of time or energy for much else.

All of the above means that our understanding of another person’s motivation is usually going to be incomplete. In addition, the process we use to ascribe motivations to other people, is an inference based on the behavior we see or learn about. We can’t really see another person’s motivation. All we see is the behavior (including what they say), and there is always going to be the tendency to rely on the familiar, e.g. the things we think motivate us. This is the classic, “to a hammer….everything looks like a nail.” In addition, if our own motivation is something we would rather not acknowledge to ourselves, we might even use the defense mechanism of projection, to “project” that motivation onto others in an effort to protect our conscious self from this knowledge.   That’s the common, “it’s not me……it’s him” scenario, and again, the less your knowledge about someone, the easier it is to project our less than desirable motivations onto that person.

So …..How Can You Influence Someone’s Motivation?

First, as suggested earlier, the more you know about a person and what motivates them the better, so learn as much as you can. More specifically, find out what their values are, what’s important to them…..their hopes and expectations.   In a work situation, ask them about what needs they expect work to satisfy or if that’s a little too theoretical for you, what is it they want to get from their work.   For some people, work is simply a way of satisfying their basic needs…..hunger (food on the table), protection (a roof over their head), a certain or minimal standard of living for themselves and or their family. Maybe they hope this will also provide them with a certain level of competence as an adult that helps them feel good about themselves.   They may not expect work to add a lot meaning or a sense of purpose to their lives beyond the money they earn and what they can buy with it. Some of the mind numbing factory jobs that were so prevalent in our industrial history come to mind. As a young consultant talking to factory employees about their work, one of the questions I initially asked was how satisfying they found their work to be. Try doing that with a drill press operator who stands there and pulls the handle of a drill press down, all day long. They looked at me like I was nuts, and some even asked, “What do you mean ‘satisfying?’….I run a drill press.” I soon stopped asking this question.

Even here, however we need to be careful. I had a labor economics professor talk about the importance of union- bargained annual hourly pay increases and the upset caused when these increases did not keep pace with the rate off inflation. He contended that these increases symbolized growth as individuals for these workers. When the Increases fell behind the rate of inflation, however, instead of growing as individuals, these workers began to feel like they were going backwards.

This also illustrates one of the reasons many managers reach for money when it comes to trying to influence the motivation of their employees. Beyond the issue of what it can buy, and being relatively easy to use, money can be very symbolic: status, competence, appreciation, superiority, self-worth, safety and/or security, freedom, growth……and that’s just the beginning of the list for what money can symbolize for people. Think about taking a small reduction in salary in your current job.  Not so much that it’s going to affect your standard of living, but a reduction none the less. I don’t know about you, but something just feels wrong about that.

If also helps to understand how a person perceives their environment if you want to impact their motivation.   More specifically, you want to know what they perceive, how they interpret that perception or the meaning it has to them and the emotion that results from that meaning. Take the hourly union worker who received a 2.0% rate increase, when the rate of inflation was 5.0%.   How do they perceive this?…..good chance that they see it as their standard of living getting worse instead of better, and if so, they probably interpret it as losing ground. This in turn is going to cause them to feel pain, and then anger.

As another example take two employees: one is brand new to their position and very eager to learn and do a good job. The other is very experienced, widely recognized as being very competent and has the reputation for knowing everything there is to know about how to do the job.   The manager gives both of them very little direction and is busy attending to other departmental issues. What’s important to recognize is that the manager’s behavior with these two employees is the same.   Will the two employees perceive that behavior the same way? Strictly speaking they might. If asked to describe this interaction they might both respond: “He has very little to do with me.” The meaning that behavior has for them however will probably be very different. My guess is that the new employee sees the manager’s behavior as meaning that the manager doesn’t care about him, and is frustrated because he expected to learn more from the manager. There’s a good chance the impact of the manager’s behavior on his motivation is going to be negative. Conversely, the experienced employee is more inclined to see the manager’s behavior as recognition of his competence and expertise, and possibly even a sign of the manager’s trust in him, something in which he takes pride. Same behavior from the manager……very different impact on the person’s emotions and motivation.

Going back to my favorite sport, I was coaching little league wrestling and had a young boy, Adam, who had never wrestled before. In his first match he went up against an experienced wrestler who was good. Adam never knew what hit him. He got pinned in about 40 seconds.   He was a good little athlete, though, and as the season progressed, he improved dramatically. In fact, he got to the finals of the post-season tournament, where, of course, he had to face the same boy who pinned him. At the end of our last practice before the finals, which I couldn’t attend, I asked him if he was ready for his match. His response told me how afraid he was, so I took him aside, and we had the following conversation.

“Adam,” I asked, “Do you have grandparents who you only see once or twice a year?

“Yes,” he responded, puzzled by my question.

“What’s one of the first things they say to you when you see them?”

“They tell me how much I’ve grown.”

“Does it seem to you like you’re that much taller since the last time you saw them?” I asked.

“No, not really,” he answered.

“Well, I’m like your grandparents,” I explained. “I can see how much you’ve improved since that first match when you were pinned by the kid you have to wrestle tomorrow night…..and because I’m a little further away from it than you are, I can see that improvement much better than you can. I know you’re nervous about wrestling this kid again. That’s only natural. And just before you walk out on that mat tomorrow night, you’ll probably be wishing that you never started this sport. That’s natural too, so keep telling that to yourself.  But here’s the most important thing….. I’m not going to tell you that you’re going to win tomorrow night, because I don’t know if you will or not.….But I am going to tell you that you can.”

He just nodded and we parted ways.

On my way home the next night, I stopped to see of one of my assistant coaches to find out how we had done. Right away, he told me that Adam won, but then he asked, “Guess the first thing out of his mouth as he came off the mat?”

I had no idea.

“His very first words,” my friend continued, “were, ‘Mr. Wight told me I could.’”

I wrestled and coached little kids for more than 13 years. This still remains the memory I savor the most. Despite knowing he had improved, Adam saw little chance of winning this match. In fact he feared the same result as the first one. I saw it a little differently and by sharing my perception, I think introduced a glimmer of hope.

Some Universal Principles of Human Motivation

So while it’s helpful to know as much as possible about the person whose motivation you’re trying to influence, are there any universal principles that apply to all or at least most human beings?

Here are a few such principles that I think are pretty sound:

  1. A person’s motivation to complete a task increases as they get closer to its completion. Motivation is at its lowest at the beginning of the task, e.g. getting started.
  2. Having other people work with a person on a task typically increases their motivation.
  3. If you combine these two principles, it suggests that the best time to provide someone with assistance with a task is to help them get started.
  4. A person’s motivation to successfully complete a task is highest when there is a Subjective Probability of Success (SPS) ranging from 40-60%. This also means that there is a 40-60% chance of failure.
    1. If the task is too easy, (SPS = 95%) motivation is low, i.e. “I could do that with one hand tied behind my back.”
    2. If it’s too hard (SPS = 5%) motivation is also low, i.e.” It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I’m not going to be successful.” (This is where Adam was before we talked.)
    3. This principle, however, assumes the person has a reasonably high level of self-esteem. Research has established that risk taking moves more to either of the two extremes when self-esteem is low.  

There is also a video on YouTube, RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, that summarizes a number of recent studies on human performance motivation for anything beyond rudimentary physical tasks and how that motivation is affected by three critical factors: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Let’s start with autonomy. One of the most prevalent themes that underlies our journey from childhood to adulthood is Increasing autonomy. Every stage of human development, with the possible exception of old age, is characterized by increasing independence and decision-making. An organization, with its hierarchy of roles, responsibilities, formal authority and accountability puts constraints on this autonomy, and you could argue that it interferes with increasing autonomy. Conversely you could argue that organizations with their hierarchies are needed to coordinate the efforts of groups of people to accomplish a result that are beyond the scope of any one person’s capabilities and the recognition of the need for and acceptance of such constraints is an indication of adult maturity.   That’s a debate for another time, but it would seem reasonable that you would want to take your best employees and while you may not always be able to give them higher and more complex responsibilities, you should be able to give them as much autonomy as they can handle within the scope of their current responsibilities.

Mastery, or having the opportunity to become really good at something, is another factor found to have a positive impact on motivation. To become really good, however, an individual needs to care about that something and they need to be challenged by taking on increasingly more difficult tasks in the discipline being mastered. This raises the possibility of failure because if you can’t fail at a task……how can that task be challenging. So mastery involves a certain amount of risk taking. Now try telling a group of engineers that for their motivation to be at its highest they need to set annual objectives where the risk that the objective will not be achieved is 40-60% and listen to them squawk. The first time I tried it, they told me I was crazy in no uncertain terms. (I have since changed how I approach this issue). I suspect most organizations will struggle with this concept particularly if they continue to tie monetary awards to the attainment of objectives. Unfortunately all that does is incent individuals to try and keep those objectives as low as possible, which in turn undermines their own motivation. And I’ll still make the argument that 90 percent completion of an objective that had a 50% chance of failure will often reflect better performance than 100 percent of an objective that only had a 10% risk of failure, but maybe that’s just me.

Purpose, the third factor found to positively impact motivation, is a little trickier. People, in general, want their lives to have meaning and some find a sense of purpose from work that suggests that it can be a significant source of such meaning. That’s one of the fundamental differences between engaged versus disengaged employees. But what is it that that can give work more meaning to employees? Ironically more autonomy and opportunity for mastery are probably two pretty good places to begin looking. A positive mission statement that appeals to certain values held by most of your workforce would be another place. As an example, I’m guessing that the value of altruism is generally more prevalent among nurses than it is for many professions.   A mission and vision statement combined with a set of values that emphasizes this selflessness in the alleviation of patient pain and suffering, might reinforce and enhance that sense of purpose assuming that they are more than just empty PR statements posted on a wall.

Talking about the need to enhance theses three variables to have a positive impact on your employee’s motivation to perform their work, is easier said than done. The reality of the organizational hierarchy and the constraints that accompany it are all very “alive and well.” Besides only a fool of a manager is going to take an employee who is only a mediocre performer and suddenly give that person a whole lot more autonomy. And as a friend of mine at a chemical company once commented, “Let me know when you start to empower chemical operators at a site, because I want to make sure I’m a few states over when that place explodes. As a place to start, however, consider looking at some of your best performers who may not be as fully engaged as possible or might be at risk to leave the company. Let’s face it, not all turnover is created equally.

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