The Motivation Challenge

executive thinking of climbing a mountain
Danielle Dyer Photo

4 minutes

CUES Symposium speaker says choice, connection and competence can shift grudging action into passionate pursuit of goals.

People aren’t pigeons.

Did you know that the employee motivation philosophies many businesses still use today were devised in the 1930s and ’40s? Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does and Master Your Motivation, noted that today’s incentive-based motivational paradigms in the workplace can be linked back to Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, first published in 1938: If the result of an action is positive or rewarded, it is highly likely that action will be repeated. If the action results in a negative consequence, it is not likely to be repeated.

Except, of course, people are a lot less likely than Skinner’s pigeons to keep turning around in circles indefinitely just because they’re being fed. And most of us would like to believe that businesses—particularly in the credit union industry—have evolved beyond such top-down management structures in the past few decades.

Fowler, who presented the opening general session of CUES Symposium 2020 in Hawaii, explained that incentives aren’t needed to motivate employees to do something. Conventional wisdom, she said, is “You’re either motivated or you’re not.” But actually, people are always motivated; they’re just motivated in different ways. “Some motivation is high quality and optimal, or it’s low quality and sub-optimal.”

Incentives are an external motivation. If someone is externally motivated, then when that external driver disappears, that person’s motivation and energy also disappears. “Sub-optimal motivations are the fast food of motivation,” Fowler quipped, comparing incentives to a sugar rush that inevitably leads to a crash. Furthermore, external motivation tends to result in perfunctory performance—the job might get done, but “what’s left on the table is creativity and innovation.”

To optimally motivate people, leaders need to meet three psychological needs: choice, connection and competence. These needs, and the productivity and well-being they inspire when met, are cross-generational and cross-cultural, said Fowler.

When you give your team members autonomy, you give them the opportunity to take action or devise a plan—not because that path was imposed upon them (a sub-optimal motivation) but because they have decided that action is the best option or that it aligns with their values and those of your organizations. If your employees get to choose the course of action, they are more likely to be passionate about it. When leaders micromanage their teams or—perhaps unknowingly—impose their opinions on employees, they are limiting choice.

When people feel connected—to each other, to your organization and to your community—they feel a sense of belonging and are more likely to align their goals and actions to meaningful values and a sense of purpose, explained Fowler. But even in a people-helping-people industry, such connection can be undermined.

“Sometimes a lack of transparency in decision-making can make people feel like they're being left out, like their voice isn't being heard,” noted one participant. One way to combat this is to ask employees how they feel about a decision, even if they didn’t have the opportunity to give input during the decision-making process, said Fowler.

Lastly, giving people the opportunity to feel and demonstrate competence is an optimal motivation—it provides a positive sense of self and effectiveness as well as the feeling of growth and learning, Fowler explained. When leaders help their employees focus on progress rather than outcomes, they can inspire a shift from external or imposed motivations to being motivated by a desire to improve.

During the session, Fowler asked attendees to identify a personal goal and their motivation. The first goal that came to my mind was closely aligned with her example goal of dieting: to reduce my carbohydrate and sugar intake, as mandated by the doctor. A quick quiz on rightly revealed that my motivation for making this diet change is sub-optimal. (No kidding.) But I can make a shift—I can choose to try new, healthier options to satisfy my sweet tooth. I can connect with myriad online communities formed around the common goal of reducing health risks (even if it’s just to whine). And I’m a cook, so I can take this potential setback as a challenge to expand my repertoire and learn how to use previously avoid-at-all-costs ingredients (cauliflower) in creative ways.

You can help your employees make the same shift. Whether it’s learning a new HR filing system or tackling a new product or service initiative, ask them how doing so makes them feel connected to the greater good. Ask them what choices they have in achieving this goal. “Get skillful at asking those questions,” Fowler advised.

Danielle Dyer is an editor at CUES.

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