I have been fascinated with motivation for a long time now.
As someone who sometimes experiences a lack of it, which for me comes as procrastination, vacillation, feelings of limbo, indecisiveness and occasionally a more general and lingering malaise, I wanted at first to understand more about myself and why these things cropped up from time to time and subsequently to appreciate more broadly how everyone experiences and understands their own motivation or lack thereof.
The goal in both cases was to see what, if anything, was to be done.
As a learning and development professional I am invested in the idea that motivation is something we can do something about – and the good news, as no doubt most would acknowledge, is that it seems that we can.
But before I move into the ‘how’, a word of warning. If we are to properly appreciate motivation and arrest a greater degree of control over it, we must first drop the distinction between motivation and de-motivation (I know; I made that distinction not you! But it is a common way to look at it and it needs qualification). Suggesting that we are sometimes motivated and sometimes de-motivated misses the point about what motivation truly is. Motivation is simply a concept – an idea summed up in a word to represent something difficult to grasp and perhaps ineffable.
If we try a practical approach, we might think of motivation as the movement of internal goings-on (thoughts, ideas, beliefs, emotions etc) into external behaviour. In this way, we might see it as some kind of force and that means it is always on; it is always moving in response to the environment and therefore ‘de-motivation’ is not a lack of motivation but simply a change in the nature of the movement.
To put it in tangible terms, my own indecisiveness changes in description from a ‘lack of motivation’ into being ‘motivated to not decide’. Something is causing me not to decide and I am currently motivated that way. This may have negative consequences but to the extent that we can get stuck in indecisiveness, almost fight for it; we can see there is no lack of force here.
Abraham Maslow recognised motivation this way; we are motivated towards certain things which he divided into a hierarchy and, when something we need is lacking, we are compelled to stay motivated towards that thing, not to change direction, as it were, to move up the hierarchy.
The work of how to improve others’ motivation, therefore, becomes how to change the direction of the force. (In addition, to the extent that our physical energy affects the intensity of the force we should also pay attention to that.)
Ultimately, you cannot change someone else. Therefore, changing the direction of their motivation becomes a matter of changing the environment and the stimuli that contribute to the motivated response.
If we reflect on Maslow again, creating the right environment at work that is physically safe and secure means effectively managing factors such as; contracts, policy and procedure, systems of work, equipment and PPE, welfare facilities, organisational structure, working patterns and much else.
I am sure most people reading that will not relate these factors to any feeling or force of motivation. “Whoo-hoo, we have welfare facilities!” is only ever heard in distinct sarcastic tones, because it is their lack that stands out. The lack does not cause demotivation, rather it causes dissatisfaction and dissatisfaction, in turn, causes motivation towards, in the case of welfare facilities, complaining, conflict and disruption.
So, creating the right physical environment and providing structure are essential pre-requisites for motivation and maintenance of these factors an important feature of any managers task list.
We are generally more interested in generating the kind of positive motivation that has people continually striving to go beyond their ‘ordinary’ performance levels but we must recognise that without having in place the appropriate pre-requisites of the external environment, higher levels of sustained motivation are all but impossible.
Let us assume that we have effectively managed those external factors; what then?
In a previous post on balance, I suggested that we manage things and lead people. This means here that higher-level motivation is about leadership behaviour on your part, to address the internal needs of the individual for, in Maslow’s terms, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation.
Modern research into motivation and discussed by Dan Pink in his book ‘Drive’, points towards the pinnacle of the hierarchy as a combination of three factors; autonomy, mastery and purpose.
So, in addressing higher-level needs for motivation the leader should for example; delegate challenging projects, set complex problem-solving tasks, facilitate rather than control meetings, communicate the vision and connect people to that through their goals, plan personal development and build collaborative cross-functional work teams. All these methods address multiple needs at once and are approaches evident in the most effective organisations.
We can say then in general terms:
- managing the external work environment avoids motivation being directed negatively; and
- organising activity in inclusive and challenging ways moves motivation towards higher-level internal ends.
To mimic Maslow:
A third category of motivating activity to add to the managers task list sits in the middle of avoidance strategies and powerful growth activities and largely addresses Maslow’s needs for belonging and self-esteem. Some of these needs are served by structural features of work such as organising in teams; by functional features such as performance management systems (in particular personal development planning) and some things by specific organisation, such as team-building events or recognition schemes for instance.
However, I would like to emphasise here the importance of the small behavioural things which, in my view, have some of the strongest motivational effects – that, if done sincerely and often, have the power to change not only the direction of motivation but to fuel that change long into the future.
It is said that ‘the little things in life make the biggest difference’. (In running a quick internet search on this it seems this has been said in so many ways by so many people that that fact alone should be enough to validate it, so I won’t quote anyone in particular.)
So, what are the little things that push at and nudge motivation in such a strong way?
Here are a few ideas – I am sure you can think of many more:
- Be interested in and support the wellbeing and state of mind of every team member every day. It doesn’t take a lot to go one step beyond the ritual ‘good morning’ and ask a question, offer a compliment, provide some good humour, ask for some advice or input – starting well each day is so important; use your first interaction to set the tone for the day.
- Ritual politeness as mentioned above can become a beautiful game that affirms a highly respectful and pleasant relationship – several senior managers I worked with in my early career did me the courtesy of consistently referring to me as Mr Drummond. This happened when we bumped into each other but also in the company of clients and other colleagues. This unwarranted deference made me feel more confident and I have no doubt helped my reputation. To this day, a mentor of mine still calls me Mr D. and this approach was not reserved for me, but I observed others establish a personal relationship this way with what I think of as ‘respectful nicknames’.
- I remember a mix CD a former manager once made me to try and convince me David Bowie’s music was great (still not convinced) – he included some choice tracks but also included some artists he knew I already liked and some other things he thought I might like – a real personal touch rather than just trying to force his tastes on me. The memory of this has stuck with me for 15 years.
- Do you know the birthdays of each of your team members? What about anniversaries? How about their work anniversary? What about their children’s birthday’s? Or even how many children they have? A kind word or a simple card regarding these things can go well beyond the usual (and still nice) once a year birthday card. Some businesses have even gave each employee a holiday for their birthday every year.
- Many of us are expert at spotting problems or faults in things (I count myself as a natural in this regard) and have to learn to spot the small but significant improvements, special features or extra bit of effort others produce in the course of their work. We positively must deal with things that go wrong as and when they arise, but we must choose to address the things that are going right. Make it a habit to catch people getting it right and provide positive, reinforcing feedback. When our team members are doing exactly what is expected, remind them this is exactly what we want and thank them for it – if delivered well, the feel-good factor and boost to self-esteem that the individual experiences are something they are likely to want to experience again and this can create the striving necessary to go beyond what is expected.
- I was told a story this week of a senior executive who, while walking through a turnstile, had spilt their coffee all over the floor. Someone duly arrived with their mop and bucket. The executive effusively thanked them for bringing the mop, took it from them and proceeded to clean up the mess, They proceeded to apologise for upsetting the great work that had been evident to them every time they came into the building and was able to thank the person personally for their fastidiousness. This person turned an inconvenience into an opportunity and role modelled the adage, ‘don’t ask someone to do what you’re not willing to do yourself’. Not surprising that a third party to the situation was affected by this sufficiently to share it with me and, I’m sure, many others.
- Following on from the previous two points, it is an unfortunate fact that bad news travels faster than good. You can shift the balance of power here by choosing to share good news more often. To paraphrase Dale Carnegie in ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’: “Give people a fine reputation to live up to”. Tell others about their good deeds and good work – they don’t ever need to know you’ve done this but when, as it often does, it comes back to them later that you did this, what an incredible boost this provides.
The cumulative force of many small things is great but sometimes one thing alone can have a powerful and long-lasting effect. The simple fact is that when people feel great within themselves, they can give more of themselves.
In every human endeavour ever tested. the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the idea that human beings, think and act better when they are in a pleasant state. Doctors have been shown to diagnose 21% more quickly and more accurately. In another study, salespeople were 35% more successful. It is obvious that we are likely to perform better when positive rather than negative, but it is also true when compared to a neutral state of mind.
When we feel good physically, and when our mind is positive, we are better at critical thinking, better at problem-solving, better at relating to others, better at overcoming illness, just plain better.
This is, of course, good for people and this means it is also good for business. And for my money, the most direct and profound way to help create this state in others is through the small things.
The force of motivation is what causes us to do what we do. And when we do not do something, the force is directed towards that.
Can we help direct the force towards things that are better? Maybe.
- Ensure the force of motivation is not directed negatively by creating the right environment with the right tools and sufficient structure.
- Build the positive feelings and mindsets of your people every day with thoughtful acts.
- Direct that positivity toward challenging and meaningful goals.
I would love to hear your thoughts and stories of other ‘small things’ that you have found work for you or others.
May the force be with you…