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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

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—

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?

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.

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 genuineconnection 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 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?

Fowler: Leaders need to recognize that most of the competencies they are held accountable to or believe in could be based on outdated, unproven, or disproven management theories.

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?”