Sally looked glum as she came into therapy; a surprise to me as she had recently got a new job and was very motivated to add value to her new organisation. “My new boss is a control freak, who wants to see every bit of work I produce,” she explained. “I feel ambivalent about the work now, like my decisions don’t matter.” Sally’s experience is all too common and may result in part from a lack of understanding from her boss of what motivates people.
Our understanding of motivation has changed in recent years. For a long time, psychologists believed in the carrot and stick approach: rewarding behaviour that was desirable and ignoring less desirable behaviour.
In his 2009 book Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink says the reward-punishment system has its place when people are asked to do routine, non-creative tasks. However, when people are required to be creative it doesn’t work.
SO WHAT DOES WORK?
Sally had it right when she talked about autonomy. Most of us want to direct our own lives. In terms of work, people need autonomy over task (what they do); time (when they do it); team (who they do it with) and technique (how they do it). Companies do better when they offer this freedom. Work that offers a sense of getting better at something (building mastery) is also likely to motivate people. Finally, a sense of purpose where one works towards a cause greater than themselves, whatever that may be, is also important to self-motivation.
TO INTRODUCE THESE IDEAS INTO YOUR LIFE:
Check how much autonomy you have in different areas of your life. Rate yourself from 0 to 10 on these four questions.
(1) How much autonomy do you have over your daily tasks at work/home?
(2) How much autonomy do you have regarding how you allocate your hours each day?
(3) How much autonomy do you have over your team at work/family at home, that is, to what extent are you able to choose the people with whom you typically collaborate?
(4) How much direction do you have over the techniques you use at work/home?
Examine what you are working towards in your life and how you could give more time to it. Do you have a sense of working towards a bigger purpose? If not, try framing your situation in these terms.
Sally decided that she could get more autonomy, mastery and purpose from setting up her own business than by continuing her new job.