Defense.gov News Photo 120324-M-AV740-001 by Staff Sgt. Clinton Firstbrook, U.S. Marine Corps (2012)

Power of Intrinsic Motivation

E. Forrest Christian Motivation, Reviews - Books 1 Comment

A couple of years ago, I went to Linkage, Inc.’sThe Best of OD conference in Chicago. I was just investigating the field of organizational development and design, and enjoyed meeting people and Linkage’s structures for learning built into the conference program. During one of the small group sessions, we told each other what we were looking for at this conference. A woman next to me surprised me with her answer.

“What we’re looking for,” she said, “is how do we get these people on board with our change? You know. how do we get people to be enthusiastic about the change program that we’re doing?”

It’s the problem that management wants HR to solve: get these people motivated to do what we want them to do. Even then I knew the answer: the only way to make someone do something that they don’t want to do is to coerce them. You make the reason for them doing it outside them.

There are other ways, of course, but they mean reframing the problem to be sensical to the person. And you have to give them a voice in their own life. Otherwise, you end up with non-motivated workers.

Which is why all businesses want “self-starters”: we don’t want to give people a say in what we’re forcing them to do, so you have to be motivated to do work for the sake of doing work, not because you feel motivated to do this particular work.

In case you’re keeping track at home, I’ve been reading Edward L. Deci’s Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation [G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995], another find over at the public library. Deci and his colleague Richard Ryan have been investigating motivation, why some people will work tirelessly and why some people will only work when someone is watching. It’s an interesting field, and they have some interesting work, including a collection.

Add this Carol Dweck’s work on the motivation of intelligence that I’ve mentioned before: If you tell someone that they did a good job because they are smart, they stop working very hard and become liars. Really.

It turns out that you really do have to be motivated internally. Evaluative comments, such as “You have to be neat” or “Your students must perform highly on the test” create external motivation and shortcircuit the motivation process: they get the exact opposite of what you would expect. They cite study after study where they used evaluative comments in dealing with students and adults. Each of the studies came back with the same answer: when people feel that they are being evaluated, they work less. If you reward someone for doing a good job (“if you make your numbers, you will get a bonus”) you actually get less performance. Or you get someone for whom the money is the point and not the work, which describes most sales organizations. Recognition is different, but the difference is subtle and tricky.

Another point is to give people a voice in what they do, to let them make their own decisions.

Although providing choice and encouraging participation in decision making is relevant to decisions about what activities people engage in, there are limits to this. Many managers have told us that there is really no room for their subordinates to choose what gets done — there are things that we just have to do. Many teachers have said much the same thing. The district or the state determines what has to be taught. [pp 145]

Wilfred Brown, long-time CEO of Glacier Metal (UK), discovered the same thing. He had a very participative management style long before it was popular. A consultant he brought in during the early 1950s was trying to get group decision-making working. In the end, Brown realised a big truth: the others looked to him for the final word on what had to be done because it was his company. The buck, ultimately, stopped there, whether or not he wanted it to.

The problem is that most people (including church leaders) hear that they don’t have to let people decide what to do. That’s not it, really: you can only say “you have to do this” when you already have permitted choices.

Deci continues with a summary of research done by Yasmin Haddad (now at U of Jordan in Amman). Haddad had elementary kids do anagrams. In one, she was very authoritative, “giving them controlling, evaluative feedback” while the other kids got a supportive tone, “giving them non-evaluative information about their performance.” Both sets were then given the opportunity to either pick their own anagrams to do or have the teacher pick for them. The students with whom she had been controlling “said they wanted less choice than the students with whom she had been autonomy supportive.”

It seems that, to some degree at least, people adapt to being controlled and act as if they don’t want the very thing that is integral to their nature — namely, the opportunity to be autonomous. They probably fear that they will be evaluated, perhaps even punished, if they make the wrong choice. And they may well be.

Of course, sometimes when teachers and managers tell us that people don’t want choice, they are just saing that to justify their own controlling behavior, but sometimes they know what they’re talking about. If they are right, however, it is probably because they themselves — or parents, teachers or managers the people were previously exposed to — had been controlling and not granged them choice. When people in positions of authority are controlling it is almost as if they were wringing the spirit out of the people they are supposed to be helping.

Image credit: Motivating low-level work. Defense.gov News photo 120324-M-AV740-001 by Staff Sgt. Clinton Firstbrook, U.S. Marine Corps (2012)

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 1

  1. Hi, Thanks for your comment on MBM.

    I must confess that I love your blog – the main reason being your posts on Jaques’ theory of Requisite Organizations. I first read about Jaques in Jerry Harvey’s book ‘How everytime I get stabbed in the back……’. Surprisingly, I do not find enough on Jaques in mainstream management literature.

    I have been a strong believer in the Stratified Systems Theory, which inspite of being politically incorrect, articulates what we have all secretly known about hierarchies for a long time.

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