Get It Done! 3 Proven Motivators

By Jessica Wishart

dateSun, Dec 28, 2014 @ 12:00 PM

Because of my Masters degree in counseling, I am all too familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  So, IMG_1880I was intrigued by a recent Harvard Business Review article entitled “What Maslow’s Hierarchy Won’t Tell You About Motivation” by Susan Fowler.  Most people, especially any other psychology or education majors out there, are familiar with Maslow’s pyramid; the basic idea is that until our physical needs (food, shelter) and safety needs are met, we can’t be motivated by higher-level needs like love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Fowler points out that more contemporary research doesn’t support this hierarchical view.  Rather she cites three universal psychological needs that leaders can be sure to tap into for motivation; these are very similar to the three elements of motivation that Dan Pink describes in his book, Drive.  These proven motivators can help you lead your teams, but they can also help you stick to your own personal goals (ah-hem, it is almost New Year’s Resolution season after all).

Without further ado, here’s what the research says we need to be motivated:

  • Autonomy - We have to feel that we have choices to be motivated.  There’s a psychological principle called “reactance” which is the phenomenon by which we do the opposite of what we are told when we feel that our choices have been taken away.  To successfully motivate yourself and others, frame information and instructions in a way that provides autonomy.
    • My favorite example of this is motivating a toddler to eat something other than french fries with dinner.  Rather than asking, “What do you want for dinner?” (the response is sure to be, “FRIES”) or simply stating, “We’re having broccoli” and triggering an apocalyptic meltdown, try giving the little one some options.  “Do you want broccoli, green beans, or sweet potatoes?”
    • It works with adults, too.  If you’ve ever worked on a pet project because you wanted to rather than had to, you know that is usually a far more motivating and satisfying experience than completing your day-to-day duties.  This is because you chose to participate and are intrinsically motivated to be successful.
    • So, if you’re thinking about that resolution, build in some options for yourself.  Today, I can go to the gym OR I can try a new yoga class.  I can eat this apple for a snack OR I can have a fruit smoothie.  If you are too limiting and focus only on what you can’t do, you’ll risk triggering reactance and de-motivating yourself.
  • Relatedness (or Purpose) - We have to feel connected to others and that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves.  Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor, writes about finding motivation even when he was barely able to survive in his book Man’s Search for MeaningFor Frankl, it was striving to find meaning in his life that enabled him to survive where conditions were brutal and his basic needs certainly were not being met.  Purpose can be a very powerful motivator.
    • If you haven’t already determined your Core Purpose for your organization or you aren’t using it well to motivate your team, this is key. 
    • Fowler recommends helping employees to develop their own values at work.  We coach our clients to hire people who already demonstrate values that are aligned with the Core Values of the organization.  These people are going to be more motivated because they can authentically live the values that ultimately matter to them in their workplace everyday.
    • Back to that resolution - connect your goal with something really important to you.  Maybe “fitting into that dress” isn’t intrinsically motivating, but “being healthy enough to dance at my daughter’s wedding” is.  Once you connect the goal to something that matters to you, enlist others to help you with your goal.
  • Competence (or Mastery) - We need to feel confident in our abilities and demonstrate growth in our skills over time.  Very few people are secure enough to be motivated by a task that is dauntingly outside of their ability to achieve it.  To be motivated, we must have the skills and tools necessary to be successful.
    • In leadership roles, we need to encourage people to continuously learn and foster an environment that is focused not only on results but also on development.  At Rhythm Systems, we have a meeting rhythm for learning from each other; we get together for an hour every week to share best practices, new ideas, learnings from conferences or articles, new software training, etc.  This helps us build mastery and sharpen our saws.
    • One of Fowler’s recommendations is to set learning goals, not just achievement-driven goals.  Some companies have a book club to encourage a learning environment; some Rhythm software users have a KPI on their dashboards for each person on the team to “Keep Smart” by reading an article a week.
    • When you are setting that New Year’s resolution, stick with what you can do.  If you’ve never run a day in your life, then that marathon might not be the right thing to shoot for this year.  That’s not to say it can’t be done, but you could be setting yourself up for a motivational challenge.  Start with a goal that you are confident you can achieve, and then make it incrementally more difficult so that you are always raising your competence.

While I do believe that the most successful companies build cultures that intrinsically motivate their teams through nurturing team members as whole people, I know from personal experience that even the most intrinsically motivated people sometimes need a kick in the pants.  I hope this research proves helpful during those times when your team’s or your own motivation fails you!


 Executive Summary from Patrick Thean's book Rhythm


Jessica Wishart


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images