For good things to happen in your workplace—teamwork and collaboration, productivity, trusting relationships—people must be motivated.
As we explored in a previous column, motivation is much more nuanced than simply hanging posters in the employee lunchroom. (See “Your Assumptions About ‘Motivation’ Could Be Surprisingly Wrong.”)
We talked with Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work, and What Does.
In a continuation of that conversation, we examine the key ingredients of motivation and how to help people thrive in the workplace.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You say that key psychological needs related to motivation are autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Please explain each, and give examples from what you’ve observed in the workplace.
Susan Fowler: Optimal motivation is the type of motivation required for changing behavior and sustaining the positive energy required to achieve goals. You experience optimal motivation when three psychological needs for choice, connection, and competence are satisfied.
- Autonomy/Choice—this is different from “freedom.” We live in a democracy but don’t work in one—we don’t vote for the CEO, the organization’s priorities, or whom we manage or who manages us. We need to create our own sense of autonomy/choice. We need to…
- Perceive we have choices
- Recognize and feel we have options within boundaries
- Have a sense of control (I am the source of my behavior)
- Relatedness/Connection—this may be the greatest opportunity for leaders and individuals to create a thriving workplace. There is no such thing as compensatory need satisfaction. So if people are not getting their need for relatedness/connection met at work when 75% of the time we spend as adults is work-related (getting ready for work, getting to work, working, getting home from work, decompressing from work, etc.), it’s likely their need is not being met. This leads to feelings of alienation. A vast majority of executives report being lonely. UK appointed a Minister of Loneliness to deal with the issue that has negative impact on individuals and workplaces. It also results in a lack of collaborative spirit, and an over-dependence on suboptimal motivation based on external rewards or imposed motivation based on fear and pressure. We need to…
- Feel a sense of belonging and genuine connection to others without concerns about ulterior motives
- Align goals and actions to meaningful values and sense of purpose
- Contribute to something greater than ourselves
- Competence—while many may have competence, they may not feel competent. If you don’t have the skills to deal with a bully at work, manage the conflicting opinions in a meeting, or keep up with technology, for example, you may sabotage yourself and your organization. I was called into a major Fortune 50 electronics organization to help new hires from Yale, Harvard, etc., learn to cope with not always knowing what they need to know. They were fearful of suddenly not being the best or brightest. They had forgotten their joy of learning. We needed to help them appreciate progress. You need to…
- Feel effective at managing everyday situations
- Demonstrate skill over time
- Feel a sense of growth and learning
Duncan: A lot of “rah-rah” leaders seem determined to “drive” people to performance improvement. What’s the fallacy—and danger—of this approach to motivation?
Fowler: You can drive golf balls, cars, and cows, but driving people doesn’t work. Driving people erodes autonomy/choice, relatedness/connection, and competence. Driving people sends messages that undermine your effectiveness as a leader:
The rah-rah leaders to mention are often more interested in results than in people, more interested in their own self-serving values than other-focused values. They may abandon agreed-upon values for the sake of the bottom line.
It may seem ironic, but when leaders shift from what they can get from people to what they can do for people, they are more likely to get the results they want.
By the way, rah-rah leaders who verbalize their “driving instructions” externalize people’s “voice” so they don’t have a sense of autonomy/choice. Yet studies on high performers show that it’s people’s own internal voices that are most compelling.
Duncan: What seem to be the distinguishing cultural elements in organizations where workers are highly motivated to perform with excellence?
Fowler: Organizations with high employee work passion—people who intend to stay, who endorse the organization, who perform at above expected standards, who use discretionary effort on behalf of the organization, and who use organizational citizenship behaviors—also tend to have a workforce optimally motivated to achieve their goals.
Motivation is the fuel for employee engagement: optimal motivation fuels employee work passion, the upper end of engagement. Suboptimal motivation fuels employee disengagement.
Duncan: How can leaders honestly evaluate their own paradigms on motivation and make adjustments that produce improved results?
For example, if you are operating from a command and control management style, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, or McClelland’s Achievement Motivation, your leadership is rooted in the Dark Ages. Compelling and contemporary motivation science points to an entirely new set of leadership competencies. Leaders need to shift their focus—
- From driving for results and holding people accountable to encouraging autonomy and choice. People want to be accountable but don’t like being held accountable!
- From ignoring feelings and emotions at work to deepening relatedness and connection. Humans are emotional beings who long for connection and meaning at work. Ignore these facts at your own peril.
- From highlighting mistakes and downplaying soft-and hard-skills training to building competence. Remind people that they’ve loved learning ever since they were children, always asking “Why?”