Where does motivation come from?

Motivation I recently gave a Skype talk on "business lessons from rock" for a group of CEOs, arranged though Trusted Peer, an online business network.

Hopefully, despite Skype disconnections that limited the length of the conversation, the audience learned a few things. I certainly did.

Hearing myself discuss the all-importance of employee enthusiasm and engagement—and the importance of loosening the reins of management to let this happen—I realized how crazy some of my ideas can sound to business leaders who have achieved major success by working in more traditional ways.

But the truth is business leaders tend to undervalue employee engagement—and the results show it. Gallup polls over the years consistently report that most workers are not emotionally engaged in their work, at a terrific cost to their employers.

By contrast, I offered the example of one successful small business team who started with nothing BUT enthusiasm. The Beatles achieved their coveted recording contract with EMI not because of their talent—which would come later—but in large part because of their high spirits, playful exuberance, and inspired wit, which won over record producer George Martin and his staff (as once related to me by the late Norman Smith, an engineer at the Beatles’ recording audition who was distinctly unimpressed with their sound). Later this enthusiasm would help the Fab Four excite a world audience—and charm a skeptical media. The band's ebullience was obviously contagious. Beatlemania was just enthusiasm fed back to them—at Richter scale levels.

That prompted a question from the CEOs about how to “get employees motivated.” A reasonable query. But I wasn’t used to thinking in those terms. For me employees are already self-motivated. And they’re likely to remain that way as long as we don’t manage it OUT of them.

Using my Beatles’ example again, I pointed out that their management—mainly business manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin (who played a management role inasmuch as he had final control over recording decisions)—gave the band enormous freedom. The Beatles wrote their own songs without external direction and performed them however they wished. In the beginning they accepted Epstein’s theatrical advice on dress and showmanship and they heeded Martin’s occasional advice on song arrangements. But the lads quickly became their own bosses. It helped that everybody was playing the same audacious game (first articulated by John Lennon): to become “bigger than Elvis.”

In the case of mainstream business, the complexities of organizations offer employees challenges that a small artistic team doesn't have to face. But even then, if we support employees in creating their own business and self-development goals (consistent with the goals of the enterprise) and give them the freedom to determine how to accomplish them, that goes a long way to fueling self-motivation and engagement. Employees may need some technical, financial, or leadership training along the way, but that will pay for itself in the long run, especially if it helps employees find creative ways to meet their goals. Self-direction is paramount.

As the decades of research by Edward Deci and Robert Ryan at the University of Rochester indicate—captured in the book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation—people have an INTRINSIC desire to gain competence in their areas of interest. According to their “Self Determination Theory” (SDT) people seek:

    1. Competence and mastery of skills
    2. Autonomy, or a sense of control over their goals and behavior
    3. Connections, relatedness, a sense of belonging

According to Deci:

The proper question is not "how can people motivate others?" but rather, "how can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?"

Dan Pink—in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us—points out that self-motivation is the best source of workplace productivity, based on the values of team members who want to direct their own lives, expand their abilities, and do meaningful work. He says:

Management isn’t the solution; it’s the problem. This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.

Pink, Deci, and Ryan—and many others, including educational author Alfie Kohn—also argue that external rewards under some conditions actually diminish one’s internal motivation, as mentioned in a previous post.

In a book published TODAY, The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance, authors Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt pull together decades of research on motivation, including SDT, the importance of Self Efficacy (having a belief in one’s ability to succeed at a given task), Choice Theory (focusing on five genetic needs), the value of Emotional Intelligence (an ability to use one’s emotions mindfully), and especially Dr. Jaak Panksepp’s findings that the human brain is a "seeking system." The authors show that children are not in "receive mode" when they come to school. They are driven to seek, not "sit and get," and we need to harness that power of intrinsic motivation. It's no different for adults.

So whether we’re talking about children in school or employees in business, establishing an environment of creative freedom is a critical determinant of high motivation, enthusiasm, and engagement. Especially today, as Millennials move up in the workplace, demanding more independence than their predecessors. Their message to management might as well be, "Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the halls."

My warning to the assembled CEOs: leaders are oblivious to the myriad ways we undercut workers' freedom and demotivate employees every day. And we pay for it.

As Edward Deci concludes:

It is truly amazing, as pointed up by our findings, that if people are ongoingly treated as if they were either passive mechanisms or barbarians needing to controlled, they will begin to act more that way.

To be continued.

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  1. passive mechanisms or barbarians

    Most funny.

    Employees or children: same thinking helps, that which you articulated: employees are already self-motivated. And they’re likely to remain that way as long as we don’t manage it OUT of them

    Love to see folks at Deci's level quoted. And Pink is always fun; that was a great book.

  2. The fact that "everybody was playing the same audacious game" shouldn't be overlooked. Having a difficult but exciting goal does wonders for team enthusiasm.

    1. Yes. Having a "big hairy audacious goal" — especially one the TEAM creates — can get anyone out of bed in the morning. Check here.

  3. it's hard for me to believe the Beatles' musical talent wasn't obvious at that recording audition. just the fact that they were doing originals was a statement.

    1. By all reports I've read—and by Norman Smith's personal recollections of the recording audition—the Beatles' equipment was so shoddy they sounded pretty lame. Norman told me it was their charisma and enthusiasm—along with the fact that they had such a different "look" (long hair and all)—that sealed the deal. He said he recommended to producer George Martin that he sign them.

      I should add that Martin was getting strong encouragement from the outside to sign the band—and that's why they got the audition. Brian Epstein pressured Martin to audition them—perhaps using his leverage as a prominent owner of a major Liverpool record store. And the publishing arm of EMI had strongly recommended them to Martin. But if the band made a terrible impression on him at the audition he probably wouldn't have signed them. Their charismatic energy was apparently the difference maker. See my earlier post on that.

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