3 Keys to Personal Motivation

Eventually, all managers learn that if they want a person to make some changes, whether stopping a frustrating behavior or gaining new skills, motivation is going to be at the center of the behavioral change. Motivation, that prompting to behave in a certain way, is just very, very important.**


But, a recent global survey by Nik Kinley and Shlomo Ben-Hur found that only 28% of more than 500 global managers and leaders were confident they could motivate people to change. And only 10% of that group said they felt confident that the changes would stay changed over time. The issue then is not what changes need to take place, but how to do it.

The beginning place for making change is understanding personal or inner motivation, what researchers call intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation developed out of cognitive psychology and self-determination theory. Initially identified in the 1970s and 80s, it has evolved over time and been put to very successful use. Understanding intrinsic motivation is highly important because overwhelming research has found that pay, bonuses and external rewards don’t cut it long term. In fact, recent analysis of hundreds of studies of intrinsic motivation reveals that personal motivation accounts for 24% of a person’s performance levels. And over the long term, those with a lot of intrinsic motivation will outperform those who work on the basis of rewards and punishment, otherwise referred to as extrinsic motivation.

The key ingredients of personal motivation are very clear-cut: autonomy, mastery and connection.

Autonomy is the sense of being in control and having a free choice. Research reveals that people with a high level of autonomy will sustain their efforts, perform well and achieve their goals. Managers can offer choices, offer feedback and ask for employee ideas and opinions. When these processes are supported by a positive—and optimistic–tone, managerial input goes a long way toward providing employee autonomy.

Mastery is the belief in one’s own ability or proficiency to perform a task or change a behavior. The most useful form of praise details and qualifies the actions the person has taken to achieve an objective. “I noticed that you laid out your schedule, stuck to it and achieved the objective in very timely fashion. I deeply appreciate being able to count on you.” In other words, think more deeply about what a person is doing right rather than what a person is doing wrong.

Connection is about whether you feel a sense of relationship to your job, its underlying purpose–and the people involved. Research by Duke University’s Dan Ariely reveals that simply being able to see purpose in what we are doing can significantly enhance performance. The most basic connection technique is to clearly establish “why” a task or job is important and needs to be done. Making the importance of a job change personal can be just as motivating as changes chosen by an individual. The old industrial age managerial rationale for a job change, “because I said so,” is long dead in the water. Furthermore, assuming that a person understands the “why” of a job without specific input is a huge presumption.  

In our highly individualistic American culture, the idea that motivation should be engineered from the inside out, rather than the outside in, is the default belief. But in business, and actually in all of life, a wide body of research reveals that motivation depends on other people. If, for example, you’re working in a company where execs make all the decisions for you, there’ll be little in the way of free choice. Or if no one is confirming your ability to perform a task, or you can’t figure out the quality of your task performance, your needs for mastery are going to be unfulfilled. And if the purpose for completing a task is not clear, makes no sense to you, or you don’t like working with a given team, then the idea of connection or relatedness will be small indeed.

The challenge of these three ingredients is that the most relevant ingredient will vary between people. Autonomy may not be as important for one person as for another. And one person may have mastery as a high priority while another sees connection as their highest priority. Furthermore, if a person focuses on only one motivational key—say mastery—over time, that person will be performing at lower levels and, at least in today’s economy, looking to move on to another job or company.

Recent surveys reveal that a high proportion of workers are very unhappy with their jobs. It’s inevitable that when a person’s motivational needs are not satisfied, firms are going to have some very unhappy, unmotivated, low performing people. The converse is truer still: when the environment offers a context for intrinsic motivation, it drives and improves the performance of the staff.

**See especially Nik Kinley and Shlomo Ben-Hur, Changing Employee Behavior. (London: Palgrave Macmillan), 2015.

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