Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Inside the mind of the motivated: Five factors re-visited

The upheaval in the Middle East (out with the dictators!) reminds people everywhere: we are no longer going to put up with being viewed as monkeys or dogs who are trained to respond to the “carrot or the stick”, a form of behavior modification. Social media and other sophisticated technologies have re-awakened the human spirit because they relieve us from the routine and bring us more equally into a rich, shared world of information. Now we can use our minds to the fullest, focusing on the interesting and complex. Or can we?

Much has been written of late about “drive”, engagement and humans’ inherent tendency to seek novelty and challenge. We like to explore and learn. We get excited about a cause or purpose beyond making money. In that we are social beings, group problem-solving generates energy, positive emotions and feelings of pride in having cracked the puzzle. But, we are still having difficulty in organizations understanding the subtleties of enabling people from the inside-out rather than outside-in.

Let’s look at the newer twist on five common “motivating” factors to cut through some of the fog:

Praise for hard work, persistence and working through difficulty appeals to our inner motivations. Less so for what we have accomplished. Praise for results tends to short-circuit the decision-making process, potentially cutting off creativity. Hard (and smart) work is within our control and we like it that way. In that the intended results often have to change because of the journey toward them (unexpected shifts in the environment), how we adapt is a much better measure of “success”.

Similarly, for non-routine jobs, pay-for-performance and other related rewards tend to narrow people’s focus on the results, which encourages short-term thinking. Fair wages are better. It seems that pay-for-performance works best for non-routine jobs to make the drudgery worthwhile. But, that approach can actually do more harm than good for more complex assignments, reducing the success of the desired outcomes.

Interpersonal Support
Feelings and compassion for and understanding the other, otherwise known as emotional intelligence or educating emotion, fuel this factor. Sure constructive feedback still works but it should be to help individuals find the right roles that build on their strengths first and foremost. If we are square pegs in round holes and those we report to only focus on our weaknesses, we retreat and defend. There is little energy left for innovation. For managers: be interested rather than interesting!

Clear Goals
Goal-setting is vital in any circumstance to frame issues and provide the impetus to work toward something beyond the present. Our brains respond well to images of a new horizon, an improvement on our current circumstances. However, particularly in non-routine jobs in which the problems are well-known but not the solutions, people are more successful in finding good solutions if they set and adjust the goals themselves. Goals imposed by others (read: managers and the top leadership) tend to yield dangerous side-effects such as unethical, short-term behavior. Better to share in the goal-setting (called “buy-in” in the old behavioural world).

Support in Making Progress
This is the most powerful motivator: being in an environment where managers provide the right resources, take down the roadblocks and creatively facilitate the journey. Any progress sparks emotions that are the most positive and a drive to succeed that is in high gear. In essence the manager’s responsibility is to create a coaching culture wherein people have the opportunity to reach for their best.

We are all “tinkerers” at heart, so those who study evolution contend. We get great joy out of inventing often from “spare parts”. We do our high fives when the seemingly unsolvable has been solved. We love to celebrate together. It’s the only way to go. Finally.