Sitting at my kitchen table a year or so ago I found myself in one of those theoretical discussions about the laissez faire nature of man’s journey through life and the difficulties it presented to managers and decision makers. But the conversation changed when my friend questioned, “If a man is indeed a man, what can I say to make them more motivated?” Silence filled the room as we waited for him to answer his own seemingly rhetorical question with his typical exuberance and passion. My normally outspoken and longwinded friend quickly answered, “Nothing.” As the conversation continued, I couldn’t stop thinking about his response. Was all the leadership and management theory that I had studied, taught, and practiced for the last fifteen years a waste? Was I wrong about what the science of motivation really meant? Whatever else may have been said in my kitchen that night is long forgotten. However, the last year has haunted me because of that one question and its one word answer--- “What can I say to make them more motivated”---“Nothing”!
My friend is right. There is nothing that I can say that will solely influence another adult. They may do what I say, but I am not why they are doing it. Managers and decision makers around the world have spent way too much time, money, and resources trying to answer the question my friend already established a beautifully simple answer to.
So if we can do nothing to solely influence an employee, is motivation possible? Yes! We just have to change our question. We have to stop asking “How can I motivate them” and start asking “What motivates them”. Behaviors, I believe, are the key determinants to what motivates a person. No amount of “because I said so” and “pretty pretty please” will tip the balance against the human behaviors and personal convictions of the people that you want to motivate. Reactions by others to our motivational techniques are false indicators of what truly pushes them to be perceived as successful or unsuccessful.
At any given time, we all have two forces that influence our behaviors and create reasons to be motivated. These forces effecting our motivation are behaviors that have an “Impact on Self” and an “Impact on Others”. These forces are in a continual game of “tug-of-war” and are highly sensitive to situational factors. Regardless of what forces are effecting our motivation, observable behaviors will be determinant of the importance of relationships and the individual’s emphasis on goal-orientation.
Impact on Self- SURVIVAL & OBLIGATION
No matter how intrinsic you are with your thinking, your effectiveness in any situation starts with satisfying your basic needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need reminds us that motivational behaviors typically begin with satisfying lower level needs first. It is nearly impossible to think about lasting relationships or personal growth when you are hungry and homeless. The two components of “Impact on Self” behaviors are survival and obligation.
Survival is one extreme end of the effectiveness and goal-orientation continuum. Meeting basic needs requires behaviors that lead to acceptable performance. When survival behaviors demand too much time and energy, skill development and adaptability suffer. This leads to behaviors that place inordinate focus on survival. To a supervisor and co-workers it appears that this employee is lazy, uncommitted, dumb, and UNMOTIVATED. The reality of this fundamental attribution error is that we as managers spent our time asking “How can we motivate this individual” instead of “What is motivating this individual”. Hopefully, none of our employees are actually hungry and homeless, but the society and culture that we live and work in may change the definition of what survival means to an individual. It is important for us to resist the temptation to write these employees off as “lost causes”. Stress the importance of skill building and its effect on performance. Paint a positive picture of short-term sacrifice in order to enjoy long-term rewards. We all have to work to survive. Observed behaviors will show you to what extent.
Obligation is a relational aspect in which motivational behaviors can be observed. Just like the old Dean Martin song says, “everybody loves somebody sometimes, everybody falls in love somehow”. We all have loved ones that depend on our ability to be success. Obligation is a form of “means to an end” thinking that is selfishly motivated. People depend on us. Sometimes it’s burdensome, and when it is solely our responsibility to provide food, shelter, or affection for them our motivation is self-centered to ensure those relationships are maintained. The intensity of those relationships will dictate how much energy we invest in our behaviors that seek to satisfy them.
Most often employees that struggle with their jobs have obligation concerns and relationships that are confounded due to being motivated by survival. Managers and co-workers must be able to identify these behaviors and assist in restoring relationships and balanced goals.
Impact on Others- PURPOSE & TEAM
Just because some of your behaviors are motivated by your “Impact on Self”, it doesn’t mean you can’t behave in a way that puts others first as well. Striking the balance between “self” and “others” is a science. Identifying those behaviors and the impact that they are having on an individual’s motivation is an art. In contrast to survival and obligation, purpose and team are more abstract to most individuals. The behaviors that people decide to use with respect to purpose and team are much more deliberate and learned. Even still, they represent the opposite end of the same relationship and goal-orientation continuums.
Am I crazy to think that if you watched a group of employees long enough and then asked yourself, “what is motivating them”, that you could possibly answer it by saying, “the organization’s mission and their individual effect on the products we produce”! It sounds crazy, but organizations have a unique effect on people’s motives when trust is high and values align. People want to serve the purpose of the organization with their individual contributions. But beware, just because you have a great corporate culture and incredible ethics, it doesn’t automatically mean you will have focused goal-oriented employees. Remember, pay attention to what is motivating them and determine if you can provide any ways to improve their effectiveness. Employees that display behaviors of intense focus on the organization’s products, display strong adaptability, and work to continuously learn new skills see themselves as an impactful member of the organization and its goals. These behaviors also tend to indicate that survival is less of a worry. Stability helps cultivate a sense of purpose. Ultimately, the more effective an employee is, the more purpose driven they can be.
Teams thrive on collaboration, solution centered thinking, a respect for relationships, commitment, and shared values. Behaviors that reinforce these things are priceless and are often hiding in plain sight. As relationships in an organization bloom, seeing the connection between the aforementioned behaviors and motivation is hardly ever reinforced because it is assumed. Extinction is a term used to describe when a behavior goes away due to it being negatively reinforced. Sometimes we take for granted the team players in our organizations and their contributions. What is motivating them to impact others through teamwork anyway? Relationships and the sense of feeling their impact in a gratifying way. Committed relationships in organizations are hard to come by. If you observe team centered thinking in an individual, reinforce it and see the impact change other’s view of what it means to get motivated.
The purpose and team focuses are never unchallenged. Self-centeredness always has a solid footing in each person. But, with enough success, anyone can realize that selflessly placing other people first should be primary to every cause.
M=E x FI
In every employee, observed behaviors is the answer to the question of “what motivates them”. Using all the definitions of motivation that I have ever learned, and adjusting them to focus on individual behaviors, I have come up with a quick multiplier to determine the magnitude of someone’s behavior for any given situation.
Individual Motivating Behavior= Individual Perceived Effectiveness X Individual Felt Impact
If a person is confidence in their ability and knows they are a contributor they will display behaviors that anyone will see as motivating. When we stop and observe a person’s need to be motivated we must think situationally. Multiple forces are at work against each other. Relationships matter. And achievement will hinge on goal emphasis. Motivation is not a question of how; it’s a question of what. Behaviors change profit margins more than any tactic or motivational speech. Capitalize through understanding what motivates people.