Optimal Motivation: From Theory to Practice

A funny thing happened on the way to understanding what motivates people. Psychologists decided to study animals. For example, one can watch American behaviorist and Harvard psychology professor B.F. Skinner on YouTube show how he motivates a conditioned pigeon to do a 360-degree turn by rewarding its behavior with a pellet. Behaviorists reasoned this method could motivate people in the workplace the same way — reward people for doing what management wants them to do — and it worked.

Now, incentivizing employees to do things they don’t necessarily like doing has been accepted as common practice. Rewards, complex compensation systems, competitions with prizes for the winners and formalized recognition programs are supported by a burgeoning industry providing extravagant ways to motivate workers. But there is reason to question if the pecking pigeon paradigm ever really worked for any type of job the way organizations thought it would.

The latest motivation science provides compelling evidence that traditional methods do not work effectively given the nature of work in the Information Age. The value of this motivation science is it helps leaders understand the spectrum of motivation in human beings. But as often happens in attempts to simplify the science, it gets boiled down to cliches about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that make good sound bites, but do not provide the depth of knowledge needed to put them to work in a pragmatic or meaningful way.

Extolling the virtues of intrinsic motivation resonates with most people at a deep level. But it also causes fear and trepidation as leaders wonder: What’s the alternative to abandoning the stick and weaning people off the carrot? How do we get and keep people intrinsically motivated? Those questions still reflect a traditional approach to motivation that suggests motivation is something done to people.

There are three different paradigm-shifting questions whose answers can enable organizational leaders to take advantage of the latest science and make it feasible in the workplace.

What if Motivation Is Taught as a Skill?
Employees — including top-level executives — are constantly appraising their work environment. Feelings generated from this appraisal process determine the quality of a person’s experience. Drea Zigarmi and Kim Nimon published research on employee work passion last year in Advances in Human Resources Development and other periodicals that indicates when 12 organizational factors are appraised favorably — things such as autonomy, job growth, feedback, workload balance, task variety, collaboration, performance expectations and connectedness with colleagues — people are more likely to have a sense of positive well-being that leads to good intentions such as endorsing the organization, performing at or above standard expectations and using discretionary effort on behalf of the organization. These intentions are the greatest indicators of a person’s future behavior.

With this knowledge, talent leaders can put energy into updating and changing systems, policies and procedures to create a work passion-friendly environment. However, research on who is most responsible for the factors that lead to employee work passion reveals the burden of creating a motivational environment needs to be shared among the organization, leaders and employees. According to respondents in a study from last year called “Employee Work Passion: What’s Important in Creating a Motivating Work Environment and Whose Job Is It?,” when participants were asked who is most responsible for the factors that lead to employee work passion, the most commonly cited answer for most of the 12 factors was individuals; me.

If individuals see motivation as their responsibility rather than solely that of the organization or their managers, that would suggest it is time for talent leaders to educate individuals more about their appraisal process and empower them with the skills to identify, choose and shift their own motivational experience.

Essentially, motivation is a skill that can be taught, learned, nurtured and sustained, and individuals are more responsible than previously thought for their own motivational outlook. This makes them less dependent on talent leaders’ efforts to overhaul organizational systems, policies and procedures that need changing. This is significant, given that revamping reward and recognition systems that tend to only work in the short-term or reconfiguring competitive-based compensation structures is akin to turning the Queen Mary. That doesn’t mean organizations shouldn’t start turning the ship; it means teaching motivation as a skill is a more immediate and expedient way to take the latest motivation science from theory to practice.

What if People Can Choose a Better Motivational Experience?
A tenet of traditional motivation is: People are either motivated or they are not. An important distinction in the paradigm of optimal motivation is: People are always motivated; it is the type of motivation they have that makes a difference.

In any given workday, people experience different types of motivation. Some forms of motivation are suboptimal — more extrinsic and generally thwarting people’s three basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence. Some are more optimal forms of motivation — more intrinsic and generally satisfying the three basic psychological needs. Making the distinction among different types of motivation is important to organizations.

Research conducted by Forrest, Zigarmi, Fowler and Facer (Editor’s note: The author is one of the researchers) to be published this year indicates there is a significant correlation between more optimal forms of motivation and the five intentions that lead to employee work passion: intention to stay, endorse, perform, use discretionary effort on behalf of the organization, and use altruistic citizenship behaviors. There is either no correlation or there is a negative correlation between more suboptimal types of motivation and the five intentions.

Think of optimal motivation as health food and suboptimal motivation as fast food. Suboptimal motivation may be easy and appealing, but it has the same characteristics as fast food: It provides a spike of energy that declines rapidly; it can cause feelings of guilt or shame. Suboptimal motivation is enticing in the moment, but it rarely sustains motivation on a long-term or complex goal. Take away promised rewards and so-called motivation evaporates. Suboptimal motivation tends to diminish or outright destroy intrinsic enjoyment, along with creative thinking, innovation and initiative.

The value in teaching people how to choose a higher quality of motivation isn’t just good for the organization. Individuals who learn how to identify their current motivational outlook and shift it will experience the greater energy, vitality and sense of positive well-being of optimal motivation.

What if We Consider Optimal Motivation to Be an Opportunity?
Traditional methods of motivation have relied on motivating people from the outside-in through external rewards, carrots, competition and even psychological triggers such as guilt, shame or fear to compel behavior. This isn’t just the result of Skinner’s pecking pigeon paradigm, but these methods seemed expedient, easy and controllable.

The question the latest motivation science provokes is: At what cost? Escalating salaries, bonuses and rewards are obvious. But when an organization focuses on rewarding the top 10 percent, what does it do to the motivation of the other 90 percent? What about opportunity losses in terms of dedication, loyalty, creativity and innovation? Then there are the hidden costs of detrimental mental and physical health, absenteeism and increased insurance rates, to name a few, wrought by traditional motivation’s focus on suboptimal motivation.

The time has come to consider the potential opportunity gains in moving beyond traditional motivation and teaching people the skill of activating optimal motivation. What might happen if talent leaders expand the traditional focus of results, performance and productivity to focus on helping people satisfy their needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence? What if talent leaders taught managers new optimal motivation practices, from inviting choice within boundaries to conducting motivational outlook conversations? What if the old axiom, “It’s not personal, it’s just business,” gave way to, “It’s business, so it’s personal?”

Answers to these questions could lead to a workplace where autonomous people accept responsibility for their choices; where meaningful relationships translate into contributing to something greater than oneself; and where competence leads to continued growth and learning. When optimal motivation goes from theory to practice, a workplace full of passionate people with a sense of positive well-being is the promise and the opportunity.

Susan Fowler is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Cos., co-author of six books including Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager and is a professor at the University of California at San Diego. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.