Motivating People to Motivate Themselves
According to Dr. Ed Deci, there are two types of motivation, autonomous and controlled. One will make you much more productive than the other.
Most of us, however, think of motivation only in terms of quantity: An employee is either less or more motivated. If you want to increase her motivation, you might consider rewarding her good work, perhaps with a bonus or raise, or punishing her—with a reprimand or poor performance review—for failure.
Dr. Deci, University of Rochester professor and former Science and Health Editor for the New York Times, is an expert on motivation. He believes the type of motivation that pushes you forward makes a huge difference. Autonomous motivation—pursuing a goal for its own sake, or for your own sake—makes you work harder, do a better job, and feel happier than controlled motivation.
Controlled motivation, on the other hand, will probably keep you productive but anxious, and can backfire so badly that you end up doing less work, doing it badly, or even rebelling.
What is controlled motivation? Well, pretty much anything involving rewards and punishments. Which, unfortunately, are most people’s go-to tactics for motivating others. Dr. Deci believes you need to change your strategy if you want to optimize your results.
The science behind Deci’s counterintuitive findings is outlined in his book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.
Deci became interested in motivation when an experiment proved that paying people to complete a task, even an enjoyable one, demotivated them quickly and often permanently. This is why you can never go back to interning.
This slender volume—just 211 pages—isn’t an easy read, as you’ll need to wade through psychological jargon and scientific pedantry before arriving at main points. That data is important, however, as you’ll want proof that everything you know about motivation is wrong. You’ll be learning new words like “introjection.”
[Introjection: What happens when you internalize controlled motivation wholesale, without question, in a superego voice of authority. Rather than integrating those ideas into your personal worldview organically.]
If you’ll be happy with the just the findings, however, keep reading.
Science Says to Cut Back on Carrots and Sticks
When someone—your child, student, teammate, client, patient, or employee—is failing to “live up to his potential,” the natural next step is to try to motivate them. Rewards, bonuses, deadlines, threats, evaluations, and grades are just a few systems we’ve implemented to keep people focused on the task at hand.
Deci argues that, while effective (in the short term, at least), these external motivators leave people feeling pushed around. He calls them introjections, or extrinsic motivations, and says that on some level, people know they are being coerced into behaving. They also resent it.
Depending on the task and personality, the person being motivated will comply, usually under some duress, or rebel against the demand completely. Neither reaction produces the best work. Even if your employee wants to do his best, the stress of living up to extrinsic demands, while fighting a subconscious need for autonomy, will undermine efforts.
Instead, externally controlled people tend to look for the shortest path to completing the task. A student being paid for grades will tend to memorize subject matter for a test, then forget it. Self-motivated students, however, are more likely to look for meaning and understanding, committing the lessons to their deeper, more long-term neural circuitry.
Similarly, employees who are just working for a paycheck are more likely to cut corners, do the bare minimum, and try to figure out ways to get more pay for less effort overall. Even those who want to excel become stressed out by all the external demands, and sabotage themselves in the process of fulfilling them.
And then, there are those who blindly rebel against unreasonable introjections. We call them “problem employees,” “problem students,” or “problem children,” and spend fruitless hours trying to figure out how to motivate them—not realizing that our carrots and sticks are just exacerbating the problem.
According to Dr. Deci, a better method may be supporting their autonomy. But how does that work?
We’ll let the doctor explain a few hows and whys of motivation in this Tedx Talk.
How Can I Support Autonomous Motivation?
In study after study, bosses, teachers, and parents who were autonomously motivated—that is, they did what they were doing because they were interested in it, enjoyed it, or believed deeply in it—were the best at supporting autonomous motivation in others.
Which means that if you are just in it for the paycheck or other perks, you probably aren’t going to be great at supporting autonomous motivation in others. This in turn means that your team, class, or family will have a harder time cultivating the benefits of self-motivation.
These are manifold: Autonomous motivation makes people more creative, better problem solvers, better at “thinking outside the box,” faster, more thorough, more responsible, and more positive. People who are motivated autonomously also tend to be in better physical and psychological health.
Organizations where autonomy is supported tend to be more productive, more innovative, and better places to work, study, and live overall.
Unfortunately, it seems like whole world conspires to keep us pursuing extrinsic motivations. Fame, wealth, status, and attractiveness are the introjections of success fed to us on television, rather than the goals that support autonomous motivation—excellence, passion, personal growth, building relationships, and making meaningful contributions.
Lamborghini has donated dozens of these to police forces around Europe, probably because they get a motivational zing from supporting their communities. Of course, they already own Lamborghinis; perhaps autonomous motivation is all they have left.
How can people in positions of authority (Deci calls them “one-up positions”) encourage autonomous motivation in their homes, schools, or workplaces? There are ways.
- Focus on your own internal motivations. What, other than the usual introjections, motivates you? Even the shallowest among us has (or had) dreams. Get back in touch with yours before you try to bring out the best in others.
- Try to see things from your employee’s, student’s, or child’s point of view. What would they gain from being more motivated? Not in terms of good grades or a bigger bonus—or avoiding punishment. How does the task contribute to their personal growth, or to the school, company, or family? Give them a meaningful rational for completing a task well.
- Include them in decision-making. You may be steering the ship, but everyone can help decide what color to paint it. What choices can your employees help make that will affect their environment and tasks at hand? The more important the choice, the more invested they will be in their own motivations, as opposed to just choking down your orders as introjections.
- Allow failure. People are going to fail, and in most cases, it won’t be the end of the world. If your salesperson wants to try something new, and you think it’s a bad idea, consider letting them to give it a try anyway.
- Set limits and enforce consequences. Autonomous motivation isn’t irresponsibility—it is, in many ways, about wanting to contribute to and organization. If your salesperson wants to try something new, you can set limits. For example, she can try her new tactic with one or two potential clients. If she loses those sales, the consequence could be giving up part of her bonus. There’s a fine line between consequence and punishment, but if she takes the risk himself, knowing what could happen, she’s more likely to internalize that smaller bonus as a consequence.
Building a Better Business with Autonomous Motivation
Even if you believe Dr. Deci’s conclusions, backed up by scores of replicable experiments conducted over four decades, it may be hard to wrap your head around the concept of autonomous motivation. We are so accustomed, as a culture, to extrinsic motivations—carrots and sticks—that it’s difficult to accept that they simply don’t work that well.
So here’s a video that breaks Why We Do What We Do down into the Cliffs Notes version, if you don’t have time to read the entire book.
Brian Johnson’s “Philosopher’s Notes” explains the book’s five big ideas. There are more, but it’s a good start.
If the benefits to supporting autonomous motivation are even half of what Dr. Deci’s experiments suggest, it’s well worth giving his techniques a try. Begin with yourself. What do you really want to accomplish? Why? And most importantly, how does the task at hand move those internal goals forward?