What really motivates people?
When people hear ‘motivation,’ they often think of classic incentives like bonuses, extra paid time off, and maybe the occasional pep talk. In truth motivation is elusive, because it so often depends on the individual and what makes them tick at any given moment. So how can leaders begin a more practical approach to this challenging step in employee engagement?
Susan Fowler is a professor at the University of San Diego and a senior consulting partner with the Ken Blanchard Companies. She’s a bestselling author, and her newest book is Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging. I recently interviewed Susan on the LEADx Podcast to discuss the real deal with motivation, and how we can make it better. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Why doesn’t motivating people work?
Susan Fowler: I’m glad you said the whole title because so often people forget there’s actually the ‘What Does’ because there are so many reasons that it doesn’t work, and I think people know that motivating people doesn’t work, but they don’t know what to do instead. The reason motivating people doesn’t work is not just because motivation is an inside out phenomenon, but because people are already motivated. They just may not be motivated the way you want them to be motivated.
If someone comes to your meeting and they’re not paying attention or they’re multi-tasking or they’re checking their texts all the time, they’re motivated. They’re just not motivated to listen to you or to engage in the meeting. What we really have to understand is that people are always motivated. The question is not “if.” The question is “why.” Until we understand the why behind people’s motivation, then trying to motivate people, it’s just a waste of time. It not only doesn’t work, but it irritates people.
Kruse: It’s really about the “why” of their motivation, so how do we get to that? How can we work with how they are already motivated?
Fowler: That’s a great question, and there are two breakthroughs in motivation science that are really worth talking about. One of them may seem really obvious, but then when you look at practical application, it’s not, and that is this idea that it is our human nature to want to thrive, that people want to flourish. The reason that is not really common practice is if you look at the statistics on disengagement for example, and we say that a majority of people in their work are disengaged. I think that a lot of business owners, managers, leaders, entrepreneurs think that, “Oh well. People are basically lazy. People are disengaged, unless we can give them something, or do something to make them engaged.”
They’ve got a wrong-headed approach from the very beginning. I think what we need to be able to say is, “People want to thrive. People want to flourish, and if they’re not, why? Why aren’t they?” What’s exciting, a second breakthrough in motivational science is that we now understand the science behind what makes people thrive and that is that people have three psychological needs that need to be satisfied, and if those three psychological needs—which are every bit as important to our thriving as our biological needs—if those psychological needs are not satisfied, then people will be sub-optimally motivated. They will, over time, become disengaged.
Motivating people is about finding ways to help people satisfy their three psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Those three things have been written about before, but what happens is other authors always want to put their stamp on it, and I really want to honor the research that’s been done by Dr. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and this entire community of self-determination research theorists and researchers. Those are the three terms they use and they use them for a reason. Just remember it by ‘ARC’ – Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence.
Kruse: What are your views on drivers of engagement in terms of intrinsic versus extrinsic?
Fowler: I can send you a boatload of research. My husband happens to be the head of research for the Ken Blanchard Companies, and for three years has won the Cutting-Edge Research Award because of the work on employee engagement, or what we’re calling ‘employee work passion.’ His work on employee work passion and my work on motivation, we are publishing and have integrated those two concepts, because they’re different. Employee work passion is the upper end of engagement, and it’s a state of being, and it’s some place that people get to over time after they have experiences on a daily basis.
I’d like for you to think of motivation as what fuels engagement, and so if your motivation is what we call ‘optimal’, then eventually or over time you will experience employee engagement or employee work passion. If your motivation is ‘suboptimal’ on a frequent basis, then that’s the road that leads you to disengagement or active disengagement. The other thing that’s happened is that we have gotten so hung up on this concept of intrinsic motivation. What’s really important is to understand that the research says there’s actually six different ways of being motivated, and only one of them is purely intrinsic.
If you’re not already intrinsically motivated to do something, because that’s what intrinsic means: you love something for the sake of doing it, not for any kind of external reward for doing it. You either love it or you don’t. It’s not like, “I hate running, but I’m going to start running and become intrinsically motivated.” That’s not the way intrinsic motivation works. However, there are other forms of motivation that have proven to be actually even more powerful than intrinsic motivation, and that is what I’m calling ‘aligned motivation.’ When you’re doing something and you can directly align whatever you’re doing to a value that’s really important to you, that brings a sense of meaning to your work.
Or, if you are aligned with what we call the ‘integrated motivational outlook’ where it almost feels intrinsic, but it’s actually because you have a deep sense of purpose because there’s something so profoundly meaningful that goes even beyond the conscious value to an unconscious, or it’s not unconscious but it’s developed and becomes unconscious. I’m a vegetarian. I started off aligned. I had values around becoming a vegetarian, but now I would be ‘integrated’. I don’t even think about it. It’s just who I am, but I’ll never be intrinsically motivated to be a vegetarian because I loved meat. It was through my values and a sense of purpose that I became a vegetarian 35 years ago and have never wavered in that.
Because my motivation is ‘optimal,’ what happens is because we don’t ever stay on these different forms of motivation, what a lot of managers and leaders do is they default to suboptimal motivation, external rewards, or imposed pressure, tension. Look at what happened at Wells Fargo. They created such a culture of pressure and tension that people did unethical behavior, because they couldn’t cope with that kind of pressure and tension. Nothing good in the long term, and very little in the short term, can come from suboptimal motivation.