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  • Writer's pictureOliver Nowak


Motivation. If there’s one thing that leaders of a business would want to bottle up and access whenever they want, surely motivation would be pretty high up on that list?

But what is it?

Motivation quite literally means to be moved to act. It’s the desire to achieve an objective. Someone who actively seeks to achieve their objective can be said to be motivated; someone who is inactive in pursuit of their goal is unmotivated. On the face of it, it seems so simple and in many walks of life we use it as a judgment tool. We see it as a single, binary scale, this person is motivated, this person is lazy or unmotivated. Be that feedback in your school report or tabloid criticism; it’s everywhere we look.

But a little research into what motivation is, reveals that it is hardly binary or even a sliding scale at all. There’s different types of motivation as well as different levels. Why are you reading this article now? Is it because you’re a family member who feels obligated to support me? A friend who’s interested in what I like to dig into when you’re not around? Or did the title/topic grab your attention? Ultimately, your reasons for taking the action to read this article, or your motivation, drastically vary from person to person. The level of motivation might be the same but the underlying cause for it may vary significantly.

Motivation relates very closely to what psychologists often refer to as self-determination. It refers to each person’s ability to make their own choices. People feel more motivated when they feel like they have made their own choice. But it goes beyond that, and in total there are three well accepted psychological needs, the need for competence, connection, and autonomy. Essentially, these are our sources of motivation. People want to gain mastery and feel more motivated when they feel like they are good at something. People want to feel belonging. And people want to feel control.

We manage self-determination through extrinsic and intrinsic factors. External factors like punishment or reward. Internal factors like satisfaction because it is fun or you enjoy the challenge. If a person has high self-determination, even if they are struggling with the task at hand, they will push through it. These are what we call highly-motivated people. If a person has low self-determination, they are more likely to blame other things such as tiredness, blaming someone else, etc.

But where does self-determination originate, and how can we develop it?

Like most things, self-determination is a combination of nature and nurture. While we may find some people that are naturally more inclined to be self-determined, remaining self-determined requires constant feeding and watering. Research suggests that self-determination patterns exist depending on how a person was raised. Essentially, a person who is brought up by nurturing the 3 conditions I listed earlier, autonomy, competency and connection, will have more self-determination. For these children, the emphasis was more on developing intrinsic motivation. A good tool for this would be offering randomised positive encouragement based on how they behaved and performed. This way they develop confidence in their own competence and they feel connected to the person offering the encouragement so they feel they have the autonomy to think next time “oh yeh, I’m good at this”. On the flip side, children that were encouraged a lot through rewards often lack intrinsic motivation because too much emphasis was put on external factors; completing a task to please someone else.

It’s pretty clear that intrinsic motivation is our preference and those that are highly intrinsically motivated have more self-determination. But surely there is still a place for external motivation?

In reality, it’s not realistic to lead fully self-determined lives. It would be great to be entirely led by our passions and the challenges we find most exciting. However, there are times when things just ‘have-to’ be done. As such, there’s a place for both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in our lives. The trick is making sure we lean more towards the want-to-do end of the spectrum than the have-to-do. And if we’re honest, there’s also a little caveat here. Sometimes the challenges we get the most satisfaction out of achieving are the ones we intrinsically didn’t think we were capable of but were forced to attempt through pressure from extrinsic factors. For example, no one wants to get up on stage and talk in front of a large group of people, but your boss has asked you to so you feel obligated. It then feels pretty good when lots of that crowd congratulate you on how well you did afterwards. So that external challenge is as important for personal growth as that internal perspective.

So how does this relate to our digital transformations?

In my previous articles I’ve spoken a lot about culture, about gaining buy-in and about creating a common purpose. If you look at the three psychological needs that I laid out, you can see that there are a lot of parallels with the characteristics I have spoken about previously in successful cultures. Central to all of this will be motivation and self-determination, without it pretty little progress is going to be made. Ultimately, what it comes down to is that those people who feel connected to the company's wider vision and feel like they have the skills and the autonomy to contribute to your digital transformation programme are much more likely to step up and participate. In fact, they are likely to go out of their way, by working longer hours simply because they intrinsically enjoy the work. So it’s clear to see how creating a self-determined, intrinsically motivated workforce is going to lead to a more productive and innovative workforce.

So how do you go about creating a highly self-determined workforce?

The answers are quite simple and, again, they lie in those three conditions autonomy, competence and connection.

Ask your employees this:

What excites you? What makes you lose track of time?

Do you believe you have control over what you are doing at work? How much time do you spend focusing on the challenges that make you lose track of time?

What are your personal goals? How do they align with the company goals? How does the achievement of your goals bring the company closer to what they are trying to achieve?

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