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Are Your Efforts to "Motivate" Counterproductive?

By Jessica Wishart

    Mon, Jun 6, 2016 @ 09:00 AM Accountable Leaders & Teams

    If you've ever downloaded any of our tools or guides from our website, you know that we ask for your Motiviation-counterproductive"Biggest Business Challenge" when you fill out a form. I've noticed that a version of "motivating the team" comes up over and over in your responses. And, that's no surprise considering the stats on employee disengagement (the last number I heard was that 70% of workers are disengaged, and that companies are spending a billion dollars a year to fix this problem.) Motivating your team and increasing their engagement and productivity is probably something you've spent some time thinking about.

    But, the research on motivation shows that many of our corporate "tricks" for engaging workers are actually de-motivating them. As a basic human drive, people desire to thrive. They don't want to come to work and sit around, letting their skills languish and their minds wander. But, some managers' misguided attempts to motivate them through money, power, status, pressure, competition, or fear actually stamp out motivation rather than increase it.

    In a webinar I recently watched, expert Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn't Work… and What Does and What Does, pointed to research by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci on Self-Determination Theory to explain the elements of optimal motivation.

    We rely on the satisfaction of three psychological needs:

    • Autonomy: Our perception that we have control over what happens in our life; the belief that we have choices
    • Relatedness: Our need to care about others and feel cared for by others; our need to make meaning and find purpose in life
    • Competence: Our need to feel that we can successfully meet everyday challenges; our desire to learn and grow

    Those of you who are familiar with Dan Pink's work know that he also uses this theory in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

    You might be wondering how traditional attempts at "motivating" employees undermine these basic needs:

    • Attempts to motivate through competition, fear, pressure or tension all undermine employees’ autonomy.  Feeling forced by this kind of external motivation erodes their perception that being engaged is their choice.
    • External rewards and incentives can inhibit employees’ ability to find meaning and purpose in their work. Using financial incentives appropriately can still be effective, but as your only motivational tool, external rewards can erode relatedness.

    If you aren’t able to increase motivation of your employees, you can create an environment where they can flourish by ensuring their three basic psychological skills are met. In an HR.com article, Fowler says, “The greatest thing a leader can do is create an environment that allows people to satisfy their needs, which will result in employees who grow, enjoy their work, make positive contributions with sustainable productivity, and build lasting relationships."

    In addition to fostering the right environment for your employees to live their natural desires to thrive and be successful at work (and in life), you might be wondering how to increase your own personal motivation.

    Fowler gave these tips for increasing self-motivation:

    • Mindfulness, values, and purpose are the three things that can help you shift your motivational outlook.
    • Motivation is a skill, and you can learn to shift the reason for your motivation. If you aren’t feeling connected to your company's purpose, you can ask some questions to change how you think about your work. Can you connect with any of the company’s Core Values? Are there things about your job that you find intrinsically enjoyable?
    • Self-motivation is also about understanding your strengths and weaknesses (how you move through the world.) Getting to know your natural tendencies through something like the Myers Briggs can be helpful. Once you understand your natural preferences, you can intentionally connect to your values to help you overcome those preferences when you need to do so. For example, if your natural preference is for being behind the scenes and you hate public speaking, you might be motivated to do it anyway if it is a way to live your purpose and connect with your personal values. You might not be willing to do it for money, but you might be willing to do it if it means you get closer to your personal BHAG - whatever that might be.


    Good luck helping your employees meet their autonomy, relatedness, and competence needs at work, and let us know if you have any great insights into keeping your team engaged and going strong!

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    Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

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