Motivation : The WHAT, HOW & WHY.

For my first post in this series I asked ‘Why do we do what we do?’ Over a 100 responses  later the answer was  ‘meaningfulness of task’ .   So if motivation is the ‘WHY’ of behaviour, is meaningfulness of task the ‘WHY’ of motivation?

Using Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle I will attempt to strip back and integrate the most recent and robust theories of motivation to reveal the WHAT,  HOW and WHY of motivation. Wish me luck!

The WHAT of motivation: Not all goals are equal

Motivation drives behaviour.  Older theories of motivation (e.g. Expectancy Theory) assumed a 1:1 relationship between effort and performance.  However, Goal Setting Theory (GST) and Self Determination Theory (SDT) questioned this. They argued that the characteristics (the WHAT) of the goal determined performance not just effort.  These goal characteristics are:

Specific and Challenging – Goal Setting Theory (GST) is quite clear about the WHAT.  It asserts that setting specific and challenging goals leads to higher performance.  A claim that has not gone unchallenged.

Mastery v performance – It was Carol Dweck (founder of Mindset concept) who observed that ability development goals (learning/mastery goals)  increase persistence and challenge seeking whereas ability demonstration goals (performance goals) can create a vulnerability to helplessness.  GST (Locke & Latham 2006) acknowledges this and suggests that performance goals can lead to ‘tunnel vision’ – a focus on just reaching a goal rather than building skills.

Avoidance v approach – Another factor is the intention of the goal.   An employee could select a mastery or performance goal to avoid getting worse  (an avoidance goal) or because they want to do better than before (an approach goal).  This distinction is important because in the work environment approach goals are positively related to performance and self-esteem and avoidance goals negatively related.

Variety  – Varying the type of  goals may drive motivation and well-being.  A position also supported by the Job Characteristics Model.  Recent research in sports motivation has supported this finding that ‘variety and fun’ were an important aspect of task design.

Impact – Recognising that the goal has significance for others has been found to be a key driver of task meaning .  This may also be supported by the recent development of social goals theory which proposes that in addition to Mastery and Performance goals individuals may choose goals to gain acceptance by social agents (e.g. manager, peers, significant others etc).

So it seems that specific, challenging, impactful, varied and fun goals that build on an individual’s  competency are more likely to intrinsically motivate and improve well-being. A prize if you can make an acronym out of that!

The HOW of motivation: Walking the talk

SDT and GST agree that the process of setting and achieving goals is critical.  So HOW can organisations create high performing work climates where employee’s intrinsic motivation is optimised and the organisation’s objectives are fully internalised?  SDT argues that an ‘autonomy supportive’ leadership style is needed. Here are some some steps to achieve it:

Monologue to dialogue – Suspended judgement and open ended questions move the focus from what change managers want to say (a monologue) to a dialogue about what individuals really want to know.  This builds trust and boosts employee engagement.  This should be coupled with generative listening – there is video summarising this here. In this way, maybe individuals will share their dreams and ultimate concerns about the organisation.

Explanation and choice  is critical to SDT but not for GST.  However, GST shows goals  assigned without explanation result in lower performance.  Employees can be asked to complete the most mundane tasks if they are given a meaningful reason.  More recent research shows that choice leads to higher intrinsic motivation.   Sheldon & Elliot’s self-concordance model  also demonstrates that goals that are consistent with an individual’s values and interests can promote well-being and engagement.  So, framing the goal correctly can turn a threat into a challenge.

Feedback and forward – This is particularly complex area but the one that arguably has the biggest impact on creating a motivational climate.  Praise can undermine motivation if it is perceived to be disingenuous.  Negative feedback can work if an individual is competent and is pursuing a performance goal.  My previous blog  argues for future focussed feedback conversations.  Maybe a fail safe is to always give positive, constructive, unconditional feedback focussing on effort and building competency. After all, shouldn’t we always be looking for the best in people?

Minimise coercive control – There is lots of evidence that competition and rewards can ‘crowd-out’ intrinsic motivation as it makes individuals compartmentalise rather than collaborate.  Measuring performance and effective performance management is also notoriously difficult and traditional mechanisms are being questioned.  A system that is perceived to be unfair will drive down engagement and performance rather than enhance it. There are plenty of alternatives – the question is ‘Does your current reward mechanisms match your organisations values?’.  Any incongruence will bring the integrity of the system into question and de-motivate employees.  Also the new generation of employees are more likely to engage with a positive work climate than one driven by performance related pay.

Small is beautifulResearch amongst SMEs has found that smaller companies are more successful at creating autonomy supporting work climates.  Employee’s in these companies also experience higher levels of job security, loyalty, pride and sense of achievement that those in larger companies.  Creating an entrepreneurial climate in a larger company is not a question of business models but cultivating a growth mindset.

Lean but not mean – According to the Progress Principle, after setting clear goals and allowing autonomy, providing resources and enough time have the biggest impact on progress at work.  Providing resources and time signals that the organisation is serious about the individuals goals and allows the individual to envision the outcome of their goals. Low to moderate time pressure rather than sustained high levels of pressure also seems optimal for driving motivation and innovation.  Research also shows that teams most likely to meet deadlines are those who spread out their work load (rather than leaving things to the last minute) and who can remind each other of time constraints keeping the team focussed. Maybe celebrating ‘small wins’ helps teams to synchronise their efforts whilst staying focussed on the goal.

This list of behaviours that supports an ‘autonomy supportive’ work climate is also supported by the TARGET model  (standing for Task type, Autonomy, Recognition, Grouping, Expectation, Time) used in schools to create motivational environments.

This autonomy supportive leadership style of acknowledging the feelings and perspectives of individuals drives intrinsic motivation and performance.  It has also been found to apply for teams. Managers who are autonomy supportive also  engender trust amongst employees for higher level managers.  It also creates a work climate conducive to ‘sense making’ which is critical for  change.  Here is a nice case study of sense making and change at Lego.

The WHY of motivation : Back to the future

So we know WHAT form our goals should take and HOW they should be pursued.  But ultimately WHY do we choose the goals we do and WHY is creating an autonomy supportive climate so important?

To answer this, SDT turns the clocks back to the concept of needs  popularised in Maslow’s Hierarchy.   SDT interprets needs as nutriments rather than desires and everyone is assumed to have them regardless of culture or context.  SDT argues that there are three basic psychological needs that must to be satisfied to maintain intrinsic motivation or for external goals to be internalised.  These needs bring meaning and answer the WHY of motivation. These nutrients are:

Competence  – To succeed at challenging tasks we must believe in our ability to perform the task but also control the environment in which the task is being performed (internal locus of control).  This explains why recognition, positive feedback and choice drive intrinsic motivation.  In fact a whole theory has be built around this need called Self Efficacy Theory  and many other theories of motivation draw on this aspect including GST and the Progress Principle.

Autonomy is the level of control and comfort with one’s behaviours. Simply feeling comfortable in your own skin.  Individuals with high levels of autonomy tend to choose mastery goals which leads to higher performance.  Autonomy also explains why coercion fails.  It suggests that individuals should have a  choice and control over resources.  It also proven to improve psychological well-being and relationships with colleagues.

Relatedness – Creating a mutual respect for others and reliance on others helps to explain why individuals adopt values and norms that are not their own. When our emotions are validated by others we feel a sense of  belonging which enhances our meaning in life.  Amongst psychologists, the importance of human relationships is undisputed.  Empathetic leadership within a clear organisational structure is critical for creating high performance work climates and building social capital.   Appreciative Inquiry (AI) describes organisations as ‘centers of human relatedness’.  AI believes in the generative capacity of organisations and that human relations are the key to business success.

A new wave of neuroscience research also supports these three needs such as the SCARF  (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness
and Fairness) model and SPACES (Self-Esteem, Purpose, Autonomy, Certainty, Equity, Social Connection).

Goals become meaningful  when these three needs are satisfied, when we feel competent and confident enough to achieve something that transcends ourselves.  So yes, I think meaningful work is the WHY of motivation and maybe the WHY of life.


Thanks to Gregg Dunn for letting me use one of his stunning images for the featured image.  Please visit his website.

Thanks again to everyone who completed the poll on motivation.


All the references for this blog are here.

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