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susan fowlerWhat really motivates us to do our best work and succeed? I asked Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does to better understand the science behind what motivates people.

1.  What does science teach us about motivation?

The bottom line of what the new science is teaching us is that the way we have been looking at motivation is limiting at best and destructive at worst. The question is no longer is a person motivated, but why. Asking if a person is motivated is the wrong question—people are always motivated. Science has validated six different forms of motivation—so it’s not even a matter of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, but a variation of different types of motivation, each with its own implications for people’s energy, vitality, and sense of well-being.

2.  Why don’t traditional forms of motivation work?

With the validation of three psychological needs that form the basis of why people do what they do (autonomy, relatedness, and competence), we now realize that the focus on external rewards, achievement motivation, reinforcement and drive theories are outdated and most often thwart the very behavior we hope to stimulate through traditional methods of motivation. Traditional motivation considers motivation as a quantity of something people have or don’t have. If they don’t have motivation—or enough motivation to do what we want them to do—we think we have to “fill the gap.” This externalized form of motivating robs people of a basic psychological need for autonomy—now they are doing something for the reward which they have no control over. The meaning or significance of what they are doing tends to get lost, eroding their psychological need for relatedness. The research shows that there is a domino effect with psychological needs, so when one of the three is missing, the others are diminished.

The new science reports that people will experience a different quality of motivation depending on why they are motivated. I refer to these different types of motivation as Motivational Outlooks—and three of the six are suboptimal; three are optimal. The suboptimal Motivational Outlooks are characterized by disinterest due to lack of meaning or being overwhelmed by the circumstances; external motivation where the focus is on attaining tangible rewards such as money and incentives or intangible rewards such as power, status, and image; or imposed motivation prompted by fear, shame, guilt, pressure, tension, and not wanting to disappoint oneself or others. The optimal Motivational Outlooks are characterized by aligned motivation where people are able to align their goal with developed values; integrated motivation where there is a deep sense of noble purpose being fulfilled or goal is connected to one’s self-identity; or an inherent motivation based on pure joy, enjoyment, or pleasure derived from doing the task itself regardless of rewards or other prompts.

Compelling evidence from literally thousands of studies demonstrate the difference in creativity, innovation, physical and mental health, productivity, quality and sustainability of performance, and sense of well-being between people experiencing suboptimal Motivational Outlooks and optimal Motivational Outlooks. A recent study done by The Ken Blanchard Companies also showed highly significant correlations to five workplace intentions and motivation. When people experienced optimal Motivational Outlooks they were significantly more likely to also have the intentions of employee work passion to stay in the organization, perform above standard expectations, use discretionary effort on behalf of the organization, endorse the organization, and use citizenship behaviors.

3.  How important is money for most people?

Money is necessary. But it is not what motivates people optimally. Part of my job is to help people understand that when they are motivated by something other than money (or other tangible or intangible rewards) that the positive energy, increased vitality, and well-being will result in outcomes such as more money and other rewards. When money is considered a by-product of being optimally motivated, but not the reason behind what they do, people flourish.

It’s frustrating to see the logic behind the idea that more money brings happiness, thriving, and flourishing. If that is the case, why do rich people still suffer depression, battle with drugs and alcohol, experience painful divorces, or even commit suicide? Unfortunately, our focus on external rewards is spreading around the world and many cases is at the root of growing discontent.

Money is an issue of fairness and justice: people should get paid a fair wage for the work they produce. But let’s not confuse that with motivation.

4.  What is ‘Optimal Motivation’?

Optimal motivation is when a person experiences the benefits of satisfying their three psychological needs. This happens through high-quality self-regulation: When people are able to align their goal with developed values, connect to a noble purpose, or recognize the joy and enjoyment that comes through doing the task regardless of external rewards or prompting. The benefits of optimal motivation are both short and long term positive energy, vitality, and well-being—thriving and flourishing. Optimal motivation fuels employee engagement and work passion.

5.  How can leaders/managers better understand what motivates the individuals on their team?

Motivation is a skill. For individuals, the skill involves being able to identify your current Motivational Outlook, shift to or maintain an optimal Motivational Outlook through self-regulation strategies, and to reflect on feelings—when people experience optimal motivation they will want more of it, so reflecting promotes the sustainability of optimal motivation.

Leaders need to learn the skill of facilitating people’s optimal motivation through Motivational Outlook Conversations—facilitating people’s identifying, shifting, and reflecting.

Leaders cannot motivate anyone, but what they can do is create a workplace where it’s more likely for people to be optimally motivated. They do that through leadership behaviors that satisfy people’s three psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence (ARC) and facilitate people’s quality of self-regulation through the MVPs of mindfulness, values, and purpose:

  1. Encourage autonomy
  2. Deepen relatedness
  3. Develop competence
  4. Promote mindfulness
  5. Align values
  6. Connect to purpose

These are the skills elaborated on in my book, and also the basis for the Optimal Motivation training through The Ken Blanchard Companies.

For a free Motivational Outlook Assessment, book chapter download, and other great resources (articles, webinars, etc.) check out Susan’s website.
Information about Optimal Motivation training is available at The Ken Blanchard Companies website.