Motivate yourself. And your team.

It is an eternal question: what motivates people? Why do people work harder, perform better? But also: what drives people to commit crimes, to skip classes or just hang on the couch? From the days of behaviorism (and before), psychologists and others tried to answer the question.

First of all: although we like to talk about it in a rational way, motivation is not really rational. The homo economicus who is motivated for the rationally best choice is an illusion. One look at the stock exchange and you’ll see that there is a lot of emotion going on, even in economic choices. Kahneman proved the homo not so economicus in research. If a product is framed as “on sale” more people by it, compared to the same article for the same price. Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel prize for economics, by the way.

People aren’t just irrational in some of their motivations, but money isn’t all of it. A company that offers financial bonuses for excellent results, might induce adverse effects. Studies have shown that bonuses can lead to less motivation, that’s why even McKinsey is cutting back in incentive programs. The reason seems to be that stuff people used to do for fun or because it was important to them (e.g. a doctor who wants to save lives), is now apparently something they do for money. And they’re less likely to put in all their efforts. Even worse, bonuses can lead to worse performance, either because that lack of motivation or because of high pressure. The same happens in this social experiment described by Tom Wujec.

On the other hand, low pay isn’t motivating either. It surely is demotivating when you’ve got the feeling that you’re underpaid or not respected in your job. Just as demotivating as a yelling boss or the company that keeps a constant atmosphere of anxiety. Keep the pressure and people will work harder, is the idea. Not so, alas.

So, what does motivate people? There are several layers to that question. First of all: the so-called hygienic factors: if they’re absent, people are demotivated. Decent pay and work-hours are some of them, just as well as the feeling that you’re well-treated (compared to what is usual for that kind of job). After that, you can see motivation as a range from no motivation through several grades of extrinsic motivation towards ever more intrinsic motivation. This stronger kind of intrinsic motivation starts with identification with the goals. An employee who identifies with the company goals is somewhat intrinsically motivated.

Real intrinsic motivation (as studied by Deci & Ryan) has three prerequisites: autonomy, competence¸and relatedness. These are rather subjective measures, so it’s mostly about your own perception of these concepts. Autonomy is being able to influence your life. How do you work, where, when and with who. You’ve got less autonomy if your boss tells you exactly what to do. Instead, if your boss only gives you a general assignment and let you do it your way, that’s more autonomous. This comes to competence as well. Do you have the feeling that you’re competent enough for the task at hand? Or do you feel overly challenged or enormously bored because it’s either too difficult or too easy? A slightly challenging task in which you can learn and perform works best for motivation. Last of all, relatedness. There are different interpretations to this: either relatedness to other people, or relatedness to the purpose and goals of the company, or a combination. Either way, if you’ve got the feeling that you’re at home in your job, you’ve got colleagues you like and you share at least some of the company goals, your intrinsic motivation certainly gets a boost.

So, to answer the question how you motivate your team. Meet some basic requirements (decent pay and working hours are a good start). Give room for people’s own initiatives and style of working. Give coaching if the job is hard, create meaningful challenges when it’s easy. And listen to your team. Make contact, try to align the company goals with your employees values and explain the meaningful purpose you have. The effect: better performance, more persistence and greater creativity.