• Tamar Balkin

What Is The Secret To Increasing Motivation?

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

We all want to bounce out of bed every morning excited about our day and motivated to achieve our work and personal goals. All executives want their employees and peers to be more energized to create, implement, and achieve significant things at work. Despite years of research and numerous blogs, it seems we still don’t know the secret to increasing motivation in ourselves and others. In a recent discussion on LinkedIn, an MBA professor lamented the shortcomings of the traditional models of motivation that he presents to his students and asked his colleagues for help. It seems that traditional approaches to motivation – namely reward, recognition and goal setting- don’t quite hit the mark for all people, in all roles, in all organisations and within the complex increasingly volatile and changing business world. Sometimes goal setting can limit creativity and innovation, as they are dependent on a clear but impossible definition of an ambiguous situation (see Locke and Lantham, 2002).  I was recently privileged to attend a half-day workshop run by Dr Richard Ryan, a psychologist, who has spent his career studying motivation across cultures, ages, industries and the lifespan. Whilst my short blog could never do justice to either his three-hour talk or his extensive body of research, I felt that it would be worthwhile to share some relevant findings as the model provides a useful perspective by which to understand motivation. According to Ryan and his colleague Deci, we have three basic psychological needs: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness. In their opinion, autonomy is feeling that we are driving the action in our own lives, even if we aren’t doing exactly what we want. Typically, autonomy is the complete freedom of choice, ie independence.  Yet Deci and Ryan maintain that autonomy involves feeling empowered about doing things we believe are worthwhile, even if perhaps we don’t like them. An employee who willingly asks for help from a supportive leader will feel autonomy. An autonomous leader is one who “acknowledges the employees’ perspectives, offering choices, providing meaningful feedback, encouraging initiation, making assignments optimally challenging, and giving a rationale when requesting that an employee do a particular task” (Deci, Olafsen, & Ryan, 2017). Competence, has a more traditional definition ie: our need to feel effective and successful when we take on challenges.  

Our need to feel a connectedness with others; to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion; to have the experience that “I matter” is how the researchers define relatedness. On a group level, if one cares about the group values and the value of being in a group they will work towards the group’s goals above their own. Decades of research demonstrate that these needs are natural, and universal and, if fulfilled, result in motivation and engagement and people will thrive. Policies or practices that are likely to support the employees in each of these three ways are likely to facilitate autonomous motivation, well-being, and high quality performance (Deci, Olafsen, & Ryan, 2017). It is important to note that the theory assumes that when people can identify with the value and importance of their work they will show enhanced qualities of work motivation.  Despite this logical foundation and decades of research, a recent article in People Management magazine suggested that many employees go about their work without knowing how it contributes to the company’s goals or the bottom line and are, in fact, quite bored at work (Calnan 2017).

Is it too ambitious to expect a one size fits all model of motivation?

In my opinion, the psychology of motivation is incomplete without taking into consideration individual differences, self awareness, team dynamics, organisational context and market forces. In addition, personal circumstances, sleep quality, thinking styles, and even the weather can shift our motivation levels. Inclusion of these concepts and perspectives to your own life goals and those of your employees will increase the likelihood of success. References: Calnan, M.  (6 Jun 2017) Four out of five workers have experienced a ‘career slump’ – and almost half quit over it.  People Management http://www2.cipd.co.uk/pm/peoplemanagement/b/weblog/archive/2017/06/06/four-out-of-five-workers-have-experienced-a-career-slump-and-almost-half-quit-over-it.aspx Deci, E, L., Olafsen, A.H., & Ryan, R.M. (2017) Self-Determination Theory in Work Organizations: The State of a Science.  The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 4, 19–43.  http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/2017_DeciOlafsenRyan_annurev-orgpsych.pdf Locke, E.A., & Latham, G.P (2002) Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation American Psychologist 57, 9, 705–717. Locke, E.A. (1968) Toward a theory of task motivation and incentives Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 3, 2 157-189

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