Motivation at work: two common myths debunked

Oct 28, 2021

5 mins

Motivation at work: two common myths debunked
Benoit Chalifoux

Soft skills expert and speaker

Why does motivation matter? And what motivates you? Is it money? Or is it more that money holds a certain kind of power over people? Can you motivate others? These are just the kinds of existential questions I get excited about as an interpersonal-skills expert.

Myth No 1: Most people lack motivation

Each time I begin a lecture about motivation, I ask this same basic question: “Do you think everybody is motivated?” And each time, the question is misinterpreted. The audience says: “No.” They’re dead wrong. In fact, everyone ismotivated. But the real question remains: what motivates them? To get what I mean, let’s go back to basics: the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It’s where all contemporary theories on motivation come from.

Intrinsic motivation comes from the inside. These are the internal motivators that get you up in the morning and keep you going every day. It’s basically your raison d’être. Intrinsic motivation stimulates you from within.

  • In professional terms, this is what you feel when you get fulfillment from performing a task or finishing a project. That’s the first ingredient of intrinsic motivation. The only problem is, most people don’t have a clue about what really motivates them. That’s why I always hear a resounding “No” when I ask my question at the beginning of a talk on motivation. The truth is, it’s not what you do that’s important, but why you do it. To illustrate, take the story of the Nasa janitor who met JFK. On a visit to Nasa headquarters in 1962, President John F Kennedy interrupted his tour to ask a man with a broom what he was doing. “I’m helping put a man on the moon,” the janitor said. This is a prime example of how people are motivated to achieve a shared goal that goes way beyond the simple task they’ve been assigned.

  • The second thing that defines intrinsic motivation – optional, but highly recommended – is fun. When you’re having fun, you enter a kind of motivational nirvana. Time stands still: you’re in the “zone”. This ecstatic state is closely linked to the people around you. At work, nothing compares to being surrounded by colleagues who are also your friends and with whom you spend time outside the office. Having a tribe makes you look forward to coming to work every day. It’s easier to motivate yourself because the environment is conducive to self-motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is the opposite of internal motivation. Driven by external elements such as rewards – in the form of grades or salary, for instance – this is the carrot-and-stick approach to motivation. Most people are motivated by external factors when it comes to working: paying the bills takes top priority. This kind of poor-quality motivation is what makes you break out the champagne on Fridays just to celebrate getting through another week. It’s also what has you biting your nails on Sundays at the thought of doing it all again. It’s the same for my students. Some are at university to learn, maybe because they enjoy studying. Others only think about getting top grades. The bad news is that the latter are likely to be unhappy all their lives, as motivation from rewards is inherently short-lived. This was demonstrated by the Swedish author and sociologist Roland Paulsen in a survey he conducted about the lottery. He found that 70% of jackpot winners continued to work despite their change in fortune.

The other ingredient of extrinsic motivation is ego. Ego is what makes you attend mind-numbing and pointless meetings just because the big boss is there, and you don’t want to lose face.

Put ego and reward together, and you get the perfect conditions for eventual burnout. That’s because this kind of motivation is substandard. Conversely, when you connect meaning with pleasure, you get into a zone of super performance. You help to send the first man to the moon!

Myth No 2: It is possible to motivate other people

Whenever I ask this second question, “Can we motivate other people?” an almost unanimous “Yes” comes from the audience. However, that’s the wrong answer this time, at least partially. The best you can do is create an ecosystem that inspires people to motivate themselves. And to make this magic sauce, you need three secret ingredients. They were developed by Edward L Deci and Richard M Ryan, two psychologists in the field of self-determination theory. By testing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, they identified three main psychological needs or three important sources of optimal motivation.

Autonomy is the first ingredient. But this autonomy is relative, bound by rules and limits. A typical workplace scenario would be giving employees total freedom to organize their tasks and set their objectives. It’s in direct contrast to pointless micromanagement, where a manager feels they have to keep an eye on who has logged on – and who hasn’t logged on – to Teams at 08.31. My children give me the opportunity to experience this concept every day. Each morning, my wife struggles to dress my daughter, who does only what she wants to. When I do it, I let her choose from two pairs of trousers. It’s enough to satisfy her need for autonomy. So, from the cradle to the office, we are all driven by the visceral need to make our own choices.

Relatedness is the second ingredient because connecting with others is a basic human need. When children demand your attention, they don’t say, “Listen to me,” but rather, “Look me in the eye.” That’s because the need for connection is intense and palpable, as the pandemic has shown. And some people have understood this better than others, inserting a touch of the informal and formal communication platforms. A great example of the importance of social affiliation during Covid-19 is how some people used virtual meetings as an informal way to bond and break the ice with colleagues. At work, everyone needs to feel valued, to be part of a group, and above all, to feel accepted.

Competence, or feeling capable and prepared, is the third essential ingredient. But do you know how many times babies fall before they can walk? On average, it’s almost 2,000. Far from being discouraged, children who fall feel they are making progress, which encourages them to persist and persevere. It’s the same at work: everyone should be able to learn from their failures, feel they are prepared and see real progress in terms of their skills and career.

When it comes to motivation, whether professional or personal, everything is interconnected. The nature of human motivation has never been about making money. Successful people aren’t out there trying to earn big bucks or score top grades, and they certainly aren’t the ones waiting with bated breath for Friday to arrive. Money doesn’t come from being a primary purpose; it comes second.

To conclude, try this exercise: imagine your dream job and the six things about it that would make you happy. Have you finished? Let me guess – you probably didn’t put down lots of money, a good pension, or an ego boost. But you may have put down autonomy, creativity, flexibility, stimulating colleagues, freedom, a sense of achievement, or the pleasure of helping others.

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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