How do you motivate staff? Actually, you can’t…

By 6 June 2013 March 20th, 2019 Achievement, Confidence

There has been a lot written about how to motivate staff.  In fact, one of my favourite articles that I have shared with dozens of clients is called “How Do You Motivate Employees?” by Frederick (Godfather-of-Motivation) Herzberg.  Then in 2009, I heard Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester speak at the BPS conference.  He talked about his research with Edward Deci, their Self-Determination Theory, and the three motivators common across all cultures.  THIS made real sense to me.  Their theories were then popularized by Daniel H. Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  Oh how I loved this. I recommended it to clients, and in particular I recommended the YouTube video that describes Pink’s book in 10 minutes.  But lately, as my clients struggle with staff who feel disaffected, concerned about the future, and let’s face it, unhopeful, I’ve started to wonder if any of us can actually motivate someone else?  I think the answer is, “No, we can’t.”  But I do believe we can focus on motivating ourselves and creating the environment for motivation in our teams.  Heck, as employees we’ve already taken over the management of our careers rather than look to the company to do it.  Why don’t we now take over our own motivation, too?

Let’s start with a drive-by of some key concepts of motivation…

NUMBER 1:  In 1968, Herzberg published his classic HBR article “How Do You Motivate Employees?”  His two-factor theory on motivation states that there are Hygiene Factors that cause job dissatisfaction and Motivators that result in job satisfaction.  Unless the dissatisfiers (hygiene factors) are addressed, employees won’t be motivated.  And no matter how well you improve the Hygiene factors that cause employee dissatisfaction, it won’t make employees motivated.  Common dissatisfiers are bureaucracy, low pay, poor working conditions, a dreadful boss, or an unhappy team.  Remove these irritants and the employee achieves a neutral state, but s/he may not be motivated.  The Motivators are Achievement, Recognition, the Work Itself, Responsibility, Advancement, and Growth.  A better boss can create the environment for these things, but the employee has to embrace them and do something.

And for those of you who wonder, “Aren’t bankers motivated by huge bonuses?” I can tell you that it isn’t the actual number of zeros on the end of their bonus, so much as the fact that it is the Recognition that comes with it.  As Julie Meyer, Founder and CEO of Ariadne Capital, noted on the topic of motivation in the DeutscheBank Women in European Business Conference in 2013, “Money is a way you keep score.” In Financial Services, it simply tells you who is most Recognised.

NUMBER 2:  Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory says that people are primarily concerned with motivation, and that motivation comes either from external factors such as rewards and opinions of others,* or internal intrinsic factors such as interests, curiosity, and living one’s values.  (For example, I sit in a drafty rehearsal space every Monday night learning choral music for no money; I do this for the intrinsic reward of making music with friends.)  Deci and Ryan have also determined that conditions supporting our individual Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness (defined as the need for social connection and intimacy) are what each human needs in some form to function effectively and be well.  If we have these things, then we will be happy and can engage with the world.  This means that as leaders, we need to focus on creating an environment where employees can feel Autonomous, Competent, and Related (connected).  A colleague at that 2009 BPS conference (whose name I didn’t catch) then suggested the 3 factors could be easily remembered as the ABCs: Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence.

Self-Determination Theory works well in the practical, day-to-day application, I find.  Whenever I feel a bit out of sorts I give myself an ABC Audit–what am I lacking in this particular day? By doing this I am creating my own happiness (and motivation).  Here’s an example… One day I was rushing around, seeing 3 clients, all the meetings went well, and yet I still felt a bit dissatisfied.  While I felt I had more than enough sense of Autonomy, and a definite feeling of Competence, I realised that in my nomadic existence of one meeting here and another there, working in a coach-to-client relationship, I was not actually fulfilling my own need for Relatedness.  Good relationships with clients, yes absolutely, but we weren’t discussing MY needs, but theirs and appropriately so.  My partner was away for the week, I had work I had to get done that evening, but the social connection or Relatedness need was there and so I put Deci and Ryan’s theory to the test.  At 5:00 I stopped by the office where I do some of my coaching and caught up with some of the staff there.  We had a few laughs, I felt re-connected, and walked out of there rather lifted.  Hey presto! Self-Determination theory works!  I have seen this work in other ways, too.  Have a day at work where you make a big mistake?  Go home and cook a favourite meal or play a sport you are really good at.  (Get your Competence fix for the day.)  Feel battered from pillar to post with everybody demanding something from you?  Take a different route home, decide to do something for yourself, and get your Autonomy fix. Even if the only form of Autonomy you can think of in a particular day is deciding what to cook for the family and which book you will read before you drift off to sleep, make it a recognition of the fact that YOU are making these decisions because you have the Autonomy to do so.  Over time, a continual focus on Autonomy, Belonging and Competence will get us a more substantial sense of happiness, and we will have achieved it on our own.

NUMBER 3:  Daniel Pink in his book Drive took Deci & Ryan’s work (and some others) and popularized it for a mass market corporate audience.  He changed the 3 motivators from Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness to Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.  Whereas Deci & Ryan saw Relatedness as a social element that was fulfilled whether in the corporate world or a small Bedouin clan, Pink espoused that companies can create Purpose for employees by giving them something to aspire to, that brings the organisation together behind a cause.  It’s easy to see this working at a place like Google or Facebook.  But what about in your average office?  And what about the fact that some of us just are not primarily motivated by Dedication to a Purpose (as Schein’s 8 career anchors would term it) so much as we are Pure Challenge or Security, for example?

Pink’s greatest contribution in his book is to popularize the concept that if you give people trust and scope, they will do what they think is right.  His example is that companies like 3M and Atlantis have given designers and programmers a half-day to work on whatever they want to do.  Because we have intrinsic motivations, trusting people to explore what they are curious about on company time pays back big dividends.  The results are some of the greatest products developed.  This makes me wonder how can we as individuals develop this entrepreneurial drive for ourselves?

CONCLUSION:  No matter how great a leader you are, when it comes to motivation, you cannot instill it in others.  The best you can do is work on your own motivation while you create an environment where employees believe their contributions matter, they have the scope and authority and accountability to contribute, and they get recognised for their abilities and contributions by their work community.  And as much as possible, strip away the bureaucracy of policies that restrict achievement.

If you ascribe to values-based leadership, you will have an easier time at capturing the imagination and dedication of your employees because you will be clear about what is important to you and what you want to achieve together, you will learn what is important to them, and you will give them the autonomy to make decisions in accordance with those collective ideals and plans.  Even with all this, it is only going to get us half-way there.  We each of us need to make an effort to create our own happiness, to acknowledge when it doesn’t work, and continue to try to satisfy our core ABCs–Autonomy, Belonging and Competence.  Focus on this in your career and you will find that soon others are labeling you a real self-starter.  And you will be so engaged by your work and your career that you probably won’t even notice, you will simply enjoy more opportunity and a greater sense of achievement.  Omigosh!  That sounds like motivation!

Victoria Hall, Executive Coach
Founder of Talent Futures

* Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination
Theory incorporates Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory and takes it further, as all good
psychological theories do!


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