Motivation: the secret sauce
Motivation remains elusive and a bit of a mystery for many. It is something we don’t like talking about. Although everyone lacks motivation at one time or another, an occasional motivation lapse is the most anyone is generally willing to confess to his or her peers. Unfortunately, that is not reality. If honest about it, people regularly fail to accomplish all that they are capable of, if only they had enough motivation. Motivation doesn’t need to remain mysterious; it has been well researched. Although, the recipe is complicated, we know a lot of the ingredients.
Most people do not hold themselves accountable for their motivational shortcomings. Acknowledging and holding oneself accountable for motivational shortcomings is a necessary step to achieving one’s highest potential in all aspects of life. After you acknowledge your shortcomings, you can look at ways of facilitating your own motivation, which can improve happiness and performance.
I’m going to cover a lot of ground: how I see motivation in the world today, traditional ways of motivating people that no longer work, a research based 3-part motivational framework, a short breakdown of those 3-parts, and, lastly, tie this into agile software development.
Reality and Acceptance
Here is the truth of it; there are numerous daily tasks that every person fails to complete. These tasks will range in category and complexity from person to person. For example, Fred may be highly motivated at work and with family, but likely he is not also highly motivated to do home repairs and cleaning. Like Fred, every person will be strong in some areas, but also have motivational weaknesses in others.
Being motivated goes beyond simply marking a task as complete, there is the whole spectrum of quality. When you manage to complete a task you are not highly motivated to complete, you are satisfied with a lower quality level than you would be for something you were more motivated to complete.
For example, Wilma is a terrific mechanic, but she is unhappy with her boss at work. As a result, her motivation is low. She gets the job done at a mediocre quality and she never has any creative solutions. In the end, she does her job and the boss looks good because the jobs get done. But both Wilma and her boss are missing out on her potential, which never gets realized or accounted for in the boss’s evaluation.
Failures to complete tasks, or to complete them well, are often attributed to being too busy, too tired, or putting off these tasks until they are forgotten (partially, the devil here is that these excuses are “reasonable” to others because they make the same excuses). Yet, there are some questions to ask yourself.
Am I really too busy to put in an extra hour at work to get ahead? Am I honestly too tired to volunteer some time? Did I truthfully forget about taking out the trash (as a result of bad memory) or did I delay doing it long enough to ‘forget’ because I just did not want to do it?
The question that needs asking is, if it were my favourite thing, would I still have those excuses, would I still be too busy, too tired, or have forgotten?
If Fred and Wilma had to go to the store to buy themselves new ‘favourite things” instead of taking out the trash, would they still have been distracted enough to forget? No, probably not. Instead, they would remember the task because they were motivated to do so. The problem is motivation not memory.
Many deny motivational failure and attribute it to something else. This creates motivational debt, which is perpetuated by not addressing it directly. Because society suffers from the mass delusion and denial in explaining motivational failure, it becomes more shameful to admit lack of motivation than lack of memory or energy. As with any problem, sweeping it under the rug just gives it room to grow or, in the case of motivation, diminish.
There is hope for a solution; researchers, at least, have realized the lack of motivation most people face and attempt to provide some answers. One explanation is that our collective lack of motivation comes from the disassociation from a historic, predominantly biological, set of primary motivators: physical danger, hunger, and procreation to name a few. People have no need of extra motivation to fight or run from danger, or to eat when hungry, or to find other people attractive. Having said that, today, those are not daily concerns for most people. So the question many want to have answered is “how does one improve motivation for today’s world”?
Incentives (Extrinsic Motivation)
One possible solution for a secondary means of motivation is the use of incentives. That is to reward good habits or punish bad habits. Most people have seen this process work. This happens everywhere; perhaps most commonly, people use incentives to train pets or children to behave. However, it has been shown numerous times that incentives work in a very limited fashion . Incentives only work for simple, often physical, tasks. So if Fred and Wilma’s motivational problem is with taking out the trash, an incentive could help.
However, most people face motivational challenges that are beyond simple tasks, for example, in the workplace they are asked to think intelligently and creatively. Unfortunately, another common use of incentives is by employers. These employers have wrongly extrapolated from experience with motivation for simple tasks, like taking out the trash, to expect the same result with improving products or performance. As such, employers anticipate that awarding large cash bonuses will result in improved work when performing more complex tasks. Unexpectedly to these employers, when given incentives on tasks that required even rudimentary cognitive skill, performance is actually worse than no incentive . This is true when offering either positive  or negative  incentives.
With those limitations for incentives, especially as most people’s lives in modern society involve cognitive tasks, a new source of motivation is needed. So, what moves people? An incentive seems to get people “up off the couch”, that is to “do something” rather than “nothing”. Yet, it does not seem to continue to motivate beyond that. It turns out that people are largely driven by intrinsic motivation.
A prevalent theory based on fostering intrinsic motivation is the Self-Determination Theory developed by Deci and Ryan . Intrinsic motivation relies on fostering existing internal sources of motivation, rather than driving motivation externally. They propose three “psychological needs” that, when satisfied, lead to developing intrinsic motivation. They are as follows: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
For the purposes of this article, I’m expanding the naming of psychological needs to: autonomy, competence/mastery, and relatedness/purpose. These still fall within the original concepts, simply adding some clarity to what they encompass.
Another important note is that motivation is not simply one has it or one does not. Deci and Ryan outline a continuum from amotivation (no motivation) to intrinsic motivation, with extrinsic motivation in between. However, a detailed discussion on the levels of motivation will be left for another time. For now, it is important to simply note that motivation is not as simple as “not motivated to do” or “motivated to do”.
People’s motivation is sometimes colloquially referred to as their “inner fire”. This is an apt analogy. Giving positive incentives is akin to throwing more wood in the fireplace. It will get the fire going a little and will even enhance it briefly, but it fades. Moreover, on occasion, adding wood can even snuff the fire out. On the other hand, facilitating intrinsic motivation is in-line with running an internal combustion engine. It still requires some care, in terms of fuel, oil, and maintenance (autonomy, competence, and relatedness); however, there are massive benefits to maintaining an engine that is more powerful and longer lasting.
Autonomy is the need to perceive that one has choice and control of one’s own behaviour. This is perhaps best discussed in terms of how to avoid infringing on autonomy. Anytime you’re asked to do something, you lose autonomy. An extreme case would be that as soon as you’re asked to do something, you lose motivation to do it — even (maybe, especially) if you were already going to do it. This is something most people have experienced at one time or another. Now, most of the time people will end up completing the task anyway, although somewhat begrudgingly if you were asked.
So, be mindful of controlling questions and statements that are often made haphazardly, maybe even in an attempt to be helpful.
A famous example of fostering autonomy in business is Google’s twenty per cent policy. Google employees are encouraged to use twenty per cent of their time on ‘whatever they want’. This policy resulted in great initiatives and products for Google, such as: YouTube for Good, Google Reader, Gmail, and Google News (as well as many failed ideas). However, the motivational gain to the company goes beyond the great products produced. Giving employees some control over their work creates the sense that everyone is working together. When told what to do, it’s a sense that you’re playing your role, rather than being controlled, and you produce better work throughout the week.
Encouraging autonomy to produce higher quality work is not easy and in some industries (perhaps your own) the type of freedom Google provided is thought to be impossible. Yet, there are other examples.
We can take a look at the typical ‘call center’ customer service business. This is an industry that has up to fifty per cent annual turnover and ten per cent absenteeism in the US . The experience provided by call centers is usually equally terrible for the customer and the employee. That was until Zappos came around in 1999. Instead of scripts, they offered employees an extensive seven-week training program and the only direction to employees was to “solve the customer’s problem your own way”. The result was customer service ratings that were number one in the US among online retailers. In 2009, Zappos success resulted in the company’s acquisition by Amazon for $1.2 billion. Zappos is further evidence that an approach centered on employee motivation is more than viable, even in a traditionally terrible environment.
Competence and Mastery
Those examples highlight the importance of providing employees with some control over how to accomplish their jobs. Given that control, what else inspires employees to do the best job they can?
In addition to autonomy, you need to perceive you own basic competence. That is, you have to believe that you can get the job done with the desired outcomes. If you don’t believe in your own competence you will not take ownership of the task and you will struggle to see a positive end. The lack of perceived self-competence essentially blocks your ability to be intrinsically motivated.
Perceived competence is on a skill continuum, at the low-end. At the other end of the continuum is mastery — the highest level of competence. People are inherently motivated to achieve mastery or create something masterful. This is why many people spend their free time with hobbies they are trying to master. One may never be a professional ice hockey player, but he or she can still try to master it in his or her free time. Having growth opportunities that are perceived to lead one towards mastery is another important motivational force.
Relatedness and Purpose
Open source software is also the result of people enjoying the challenge of creating something masterful together. In these tasks, not only do we have mastery as motivation; but also, we are motivated through simply connecting to others.
Purpose and relatedness work together cyclically. Creating a shared purpose provides a context for employees to develop relatedness to one another. In nature, we develop relatedness through shared goals with our family, friends, or groups. We strive for relatedness as a basic psychological need. Relatedness mean we want to authentically connect with others and feel involved socially. This may have evolved from a common benefit (e.g. mutual survival) in the past, but now we have this innate desire (instinct) to connect. So, to create relatedness, we simply need to create the context that allows for. Which brings us full circle, as we create that context by giving the team a shared purpose.
We see this in all types of groups; for example: sports and software teams. We have a shared purpose that brings us together and naturally we develop relatedness to each other. Furthermore, the relatedness ends up transcending the original purpose or context in which it was developed. It may seem obvious, but teammates often end up being life-long friends. Former coworkers often look to work together again. It is almost so obvious and natural we overlook it.
In the long run, developing relatedness and mastery together will allow teams to take on any new challenges or new purpose. Possibly, even creating a new shared sense of purpose for the mastery-seeking and high-relatedness-team that is to accomplish more than they ever dreamed they could alone.
I’ve covered some, but there are a lot of factors that can help or hinder motivation. You can’t go wrong with increasing awareness and attention to motivational needs. It is an important first step to improving motivation and, given the right set of circumstances, people can become intrinsically motivated where previously they were not. Alternatively, giving incentives can be controlling and take away intrinsic motivation and result in worse performance by forcing attention to be myopic and narrow (relating to scope and breadth).
One potential solution is an agile development approach, which focuses on small self-organizing teams. This arrangement, if properly followed, allows for everyone on the team to be intrinsically motivated for their own work.
Agile processes create autonomy through having all cross functional team members being a part of the entire process. From planning what work is to be done to self-selecting the tasks they will be responsible for.
Agile also helps with perceived competence and mastery as teams share many of the responsibilities. This ensures team members are not left feeling overwhelmed, burdened, or incompetent on a certain task. As well as, providing plenty of learning opportunities to further their mastery.
Agile teams work together to set and accomplish goals. This fosters both autonomy and shared purpose. Furthermore, working together closely with cross functional team members provides social relatedness within the whole team. As a result, they are more connected to the larger purpose or vision of the product and the goals of the company across traditional departments.
Caveat and Conclusion
One caveat about motivation is that money is still a motivator . People are very astute with regard to fairness in pay. However, if people are paid fairly it diminishes the controlling effect of money. Ideally, one should pay people well enough to take money out of the equation, so people are no longer concerned with supporting themselves or their family. Once money is out of the equation, with the right conditions, the truly wonderful benefits of facilitating intrinsically motivated people will be revealed.
Hopefully, this starts a path of understanding that a lack of motivation is real, common, not shameful, and there are means of improving. If you manage other people, consider that traditional management practices were developed around the 1850s (the time of Queen Victoria and before Canada was a country) and focused on compliance from workers .
The bar can be set higher than compliance, aim for engagement. Aim to get the most out of your people, for their benefit and for the company’s benefit. You can get there by allowing people to satisfy psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. As a result of meeting those needs your people will get better learning, greater creativity, improved happiness, and better performance.
 D. ARIELY, U. GNEEZY, G. LOWENSTEIN, and N. MAZAR, Large Stakes and Big Mistakes Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper №05–11, July. 2005; NY TIMES, 20 Nov. 08
 URI GNEEZY and ALDO RUSTICHINI, A Fine is a Price, Journal of Legal Studies, vol. XXIX (January 2000)
 DECI, E. L., and RYAN, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.
 GUADAGNOLI M., & LEE T. Challenge point: a framework for conceptualizing the effects of various practice conditions in motor learning. J Motor Behav 2004; 36: 212–24.
 PINK, DANIEL H. (2010). Drive — The Surprising Truth about what motivates us. 2815 of 3967: Canongate Books.
Note: originally posted December 10, 2012 on Reverbhq.com’s blog.
Originally published at christopheredwardspm.wordpress.com on December 10, 2012.