Motivation At Work

How to create sustainable motivation and watch out for the factors that kill motivation.

The $10,000,000 question that leaders ask most is “How can we motivate people?” Let’s reframe the question to reflect what can be done for others, “How can we create an environment that enables people to motivate themselves?”

A client of mine has an interesting work dilemma. This client—we’ll call him Sam—has a great rapport with his boss, Jason. Jason is a prolific idea person who supports Sam by assigning him new projects on a regular basis. So what’s Sam’s problem? None of the ideas interest him. Fever ThermometerAlthough he works on them dutifully, he feels disloyal for not appreciating them. He feels like he’s being a good soldier, but not much else. Sam’s complaint is that he’s uninspired and finds himself watching the clock so he can go home. He knows he could be doing better work. Sam has the performance equivalent of a low-grade fever—not sick enough for medication, but not well enough to sprint.

While Sam has many of the ingredients to feel fulfilled in his job, he is lacking self-motivation, the same quality I’ve described in my past three columns on autonomy-supportive parenting (1, 2, 3). In my professional life, I often work with executives and businesses to fine tune their work culture. Autonomy support is a critical tool for leaders to instill self-motivation in the workplace, just as it is for parents to instill self-determination in children.

Brain gearsNow let’s focus on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, doing work for its own sake is more sustainable, leads to greater job satisfaction, more engagement and even better, greater levels of physical and mental health than extrinsic motivation based on tangible rewards initiated by others. Our natural drive for autonomy leads to intrinsic motivation. The good news is that autonomy develops within us from childhood, like the ability to walk on our own, unless stifled.

What Factors Enhance Motivation?

Choice and experiences of competence are external factors that enhance feelings of autonomy. If Jason wants Sam to go beyond “meets expectations” to reach heights that Jason himself has not imagined, he needs to balance the necessary drudgery and externally controlled aspects, like deadlines and budgets, with some autonomous aspects that give Sam choice.Jason can start with these steps:

  • Involve Sam in brainstorming early in the idea stage
  • Help Sam discover something that he finds exciting about the project
  • Clarify the goals and leave the means of accomplishing them up to Sam
  • Create landmarks together so that Sam can feel a sense of accomplishment, success, and competence along the way

Now let’s talk about external rewards. What do you think might work better—positive feedback or a bonus? Okay, it’s a trick question. Based on extensive analysis of hundreds of studies on external rewards, renowned motivation researcher Edward Deci and colleagues found that positive feedback is more motivating–provided it is specific, given within a conversation (rather than on the fly), and based on describing and uncovering the behavior that produced the success. This type of focused positive attention from Jason encourages a sense of competence and learning, helping Sam see how his efforts contributed to successful outcomes.

What Factors Tend to Demotivate?

Negative feedback can diminish both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation at work, according to motivation researchers Gagne and Deci. This suggests that the perennial stand-by for employee development, the performance evaluation, needs to include healthy doses of positive feedback surrounding any discussion of “challenges.” Talking about challenges is a good opportunity to invite the employee’s input on overcoming them. Peak-end theory also suggests that it’s best to end meetings on a positive note. I often suggest the “sandwich” method to my clients—start and end the conversation with genuinely positive feedback.

Floating MoneySo what about money as a motivator? In the case of bonuses, it depends. Deci found that bonuses given on a contingency basis—for example, for completing a task or reaching a specific goal—can actually demotivate, unless they are unexpected and/or accompanied by loads of peer support. We’re not saying here that decent salaries and monetary bonuses aren’t welcome or appreciated. It’s just that the positive feelings they cause are short-lived.

Discontent about money can also be a red herring in the workplace. Often, when intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction are missing, employees will focus on compensation and other tangible replacements. But why make it an either/or question? Competitive wages and bonuses can either motivate or demotivate. In tight financial times, why not use the science of motivation to get the most value from those dollars?

What is Autonomy Supportive Leadership?

In summary, autonomy-supported leaders create the environment that fosters choice, giving people opportunities for success and for developing feelings of competence. According to science, self-motivation thrives in the medium of choice.

Keys to SuccessHow do we build choice into jobs? Helping employees recraft their jobs around reaching specified goals by exercising their strengths, passions and skills is likely to result in more engagement and a better outcome for everyone. Employees are more energized when their actions emanate from choice rather than external control. The vitality that comes from caring about the work itself and relationships with colleagues can be, as they say, priceless.

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