Solving the Mysteries of Motivation at Work

Why we do what we do is one of the most interesting, and at times perplexing, questions for behavioral scientists, leaders, parents, and anyone else that deals with the mysteries of motivation. To start to understand motivation, we can visualize it as a continuum with motivations that are part of our nature (intrinsic motivators) on one end, and those that originate outside of ourselves (extrinsic motivators) at the other end. Along the continuum are varying degrees to which an external source of motivation, for example an idea, becomes more internalized as we begin to think of it as our own.

A near-universal example is a typical two-year-old. No one needs to teach a two-year-old the concept of play – it comes naturally, and the motivation to have fun is intrinsic. Whether they come across a scrap of paper, a couple of sticks, or one of the endless numbers of toys, most children will engage and entertain themselves for as long as their attention spans allow. Conversely, I have never come across a two-year-old who saw a toothbrush and toothpaste and decided it would be a great idea to place the latter on the former, put it in their mouth, and move it around for two minutes every day, several times a day. Brushing one’s teeth is an idea and activity that begins as something external and controlled by parents. Only with coaxing, practice, time, and dating does it become internalized and adopted as one’s own. From a motivational viewpoint, parents first help a child to find a purpose for brushing their teeth (perhaps pleasing their parents), develop the skills to achieve that purpose (how to brush), and then allow them to make it their choice to pursue that purpose as they came to consider it their own. Motivation at work works much the same way.

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The Mechanics of Motivation

From a behavioral science perspective, motivation is “energy that is directed by our thoughts and feelings to meet a need”. As we grow older, and our thoughts and feelings evolve, what intrinsically motivates us becomes more complex and sophisticated. In parallel, the number of external influences that we are required or choose to internalize increases dramatically. However, the drive to meet our needs doesn’t change.

When applied to the world of work, where people have the opportunity to achieve specific outcomes in exchange for both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, the phenomenon of motivation helps us understand what drives people’s behaviors.

intrisic and extrinsic motivation

Image created by Elena Newton. Copyright © 2018 Elena Newton

One of the most widely tested, and cross-culturally validated, frameworks of motivation at work is Self-Determination Theory. Self-Determination describes the needs that must be satisfied so that people can realize their potential, and so they can optimize their personal development and performance. These basic psychological needs
include: finding meaning and purpose in what they do; developing the skills and competence to realize their purpose; and having the freedom of choice and autonomy to pursue their purpose. Understanding that those needs reside at the core of each person is the key to improving the motivation and well-being of your people.

Motivating Your Team – Understanding Core Needs

How often have you heard observations like “my people don’t seem to be fully engaged” or, “my team needs more energy”? While the symptoms of lacking motivation may be easy to identify, solutions are hard to find – especially solutions that are practical and validated by research. I did a Google search on “motivating teams” and the
top results included: “25 Ways to Motivate Your Team to Greatness”, “15 Effective Ways to Motivate Your Team”, and “10 Unique Ways to Motivate Your Team”. I don’t know about you, but given the day-to-day reality of leadership, implementing 25, 15, or 10 actions to improve motivation just isn’t going to happen. Fortunately, behavioral science provides a simple, powerful approach to energizing your people – focus on helping them satisfy their core psychological needs.

The core psychological needs of finding purpose, building competence, and having autonomy are universal and cross-cultural. Fulfillment of those needs is central to energy and engagement. As a team leader, your first step to building a motivated and highly-engaged team is to understand the status of each core need for every team member:

  • Purpose. Finding meaning and purpose in our work is at the heart of positive energy and motivation. It is essential that every team member has a clear purpose. Your goal is to gauge how clearly each team member understands the contribution their work makes to the purpose and goals of the team, the broader organization, and their own aspirations.
  • Competencies. There is a strong relationship between competencies, confidence, and results. Your goal is to identify the capabilities that each team member needs to realize the purpose of their role, and then gauge the level of development of each of those competencies.
  • Autonomy. Maximizing people’s energy and engagement requires that they have the freedom to realize the purpose they find in their work. That freedom should be consistent with the clarity of their purpose and the level of their competencies. Your objective is to assess the degree of autonomy each team member needs to achieve their goals, versus their clarity of purpose, and level of competency.

With a clear sense of each team member’s core needs, you’re ready to help them meet and balance those needs to maximize their motivation at work.

The Motivational Triangle

Visualize an equilateral triangle where each side represents a core psychological need: purpose, competence, and autonomy. The length of each side of the triangle illustrates how fully each need is being satisfied. A person who has clarity of purpose in their work, is getting the support that they need to develop the competencies to fulfill that purpose and are given the appropriate amount of autonomy, has a balanced triangle. Conversely, if a highly-competent person isn’t getting the autonomy to pursue their purpose, they are being micromanaged. Or, if a team member gets too much autonomy without clear purpose and enough skills, that will lead to stress and burnout. In both cases, the imbalance will cause motivation and well-being to deteriorate. By identifying gaps in the length of the sides of the triangle for each team member and taking steps to close those gaps, you will maintain a high level of motivation.

Purpose, competence, and autonomy. The degree to which people satisfy those basic needs determines what turns people on, and off, at work. The process of satisfying those needs helps people to maximize what naturally, intrinsically motivates them, and to identify the extrinsic elements of work that they wish to invest in and internalize. For team leaders, the Motivational Triangle will help you to understand the status of the core needs of each team member, identify the gaps, and work together to close them.

Unraveling Motivation

Unravelling the mysteries of motivation at work, and understanding what really turns your people on, isn’t rocket science but it is behavioral science. Moreover, it is easier than motivating a two-year-old to regularly brush their teeth. Building a high-performance 21st Century team means learning to resist the lists of pop psychology quick-fixes, and taking the time to understand the basic ingredients of human motivation. With that understanding, and by developing the habit of tuning in to each of your team members to uncover how well they are satisfying their core needs, you can help them to close any gaps. By doing so, you will increase their energy, improve their well-being, and put your team on the path to excellence.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.