Home > Kadri > Susan Fowler: Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work and What Does; The New Science of Leading, Energizing and Engaging

Susan Fowler: Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work and What Does; The New Science of Leading, Energizing and Engaging

Ken Blanchard introduced with partners Situational Leadership II over thirty years ago and Susan’s model Spectrum of Motivation is very complementary to it. Both models provide leaders with specific actions and language for helping people grow, produce and thrive. Leadership is not something you do to people; it is something you do with people.

Motivation for an author is the energy to act. But this definition does nothing to help you understand the reasons behind the action. Question if you are motivated is not the right one. The right one is why you are motivated. If your motivation is result of better drivers, potential of that motivation is better. So, the question is not the size of motivation, but quality of it.

Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, had a theory that parent and teacher should stop bribing children for doing things they are already inclined to do – such as learn, grow and excel. Kohn tried to explain that reward and punishment can work at the moment, but they only buy one thing: temporary compliance.

When B.F. Skinner showed how he can make pigeon do what he wants him to do, by rewarding him with pellets, author and her colleagues call it a Pecking Pigeon Paradigm. This approach is heavily used also in business, with compensation systems, rewards, tokens, badges. But this correlation is not so positive. External rewards produce disturbing undermining effect on the energy, vitality and sense of positive well-being people need to achieve goals, attain excellence and sustain effort. It is unwise to confuse productivity with thriving and flourishing.

The Motivation Dilemma

The motivation dilemma is that leaders are being held accountable to do something they cannot do – motivate others. People are always motivated; the question is not if a person is motivated but why.

Understanding what works with motivation starts with appraisal process. That is based on cognition and emotions that lead to well-being of a person that determines intentions and intentions are the greatest predictors of behavior. If all is developing properly, that leads to employee engagement. Highest form of it is employee work passion, that demonstrates these five positive intentions:

  • Performs above standard expectations.
  • Uses discretionary effort on behalf of the organization.
  • Endorses the organization and its leadership to others outside the organization.
  • Uses altruistic citizenship behaviors toward all stakeholders.
  • Stays with organization.

You can’t motivate people, but you can help them navigate their appraisal process or teach them the skill of motivation. Optimal motivation means having the positive energy, vitality and sense of well-being required to sustain the pursuit and achievement of meaningful goals while thriving and flourishing.

Asking why people were motivated leads to a spectrum of motivation possibilities represented as six motivational outlooks. This are not fix, you can be in one of them and then pop out and pop in to another one. Outlooks are based on their value representation towards self-regulation on one axis and psychological needs on another.

  • Disinterested motivational outlook: you don’t find any value in your activity.
  • External motivational outlook: it was an opportunity for you to get more power or to gain some advantage for yourself and improve your status with others.
  • Imposed motivational outlook: you felt pressured, you were avoiding feelings of guilt, shame or fear from not participating.
  • Aligned motivational outlook: you can link activity to significant value, such as learning.
  • Integrated motivational outlook: you were able to link it to life or work purpose.
  • Inherent motivational outlook: you simply enjoy in it.

The first three outlooks are suboptimal and are considered the junk food of motivation, later three are above optimal and are considered as health food of motivation.

Real story of motivation

People yearn for self-identity, growth and meaningful connection to others. We want to flourish, but we can do it alone. Three main psychological needs are:

  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Competence

ARC is abbreviation of those three.

Autonomy is our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our actions. If people don’t have their sense of empowerment, their sense of autonomy suffers and so do their productivity and performance. Every time we take a position that we don’t have a choice, we are undermining our experience of autonomy. Dr. Brandon Irwin’s study showed that quite coaches garnered higher productivity from exerciser than verbally encouraging did.

Relatedness is our need to care about and be cared about by others. It is our need to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives. It is our need to feel that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves. Range is personal, interpersonal and social. Relatedness is extremely important at work, since you probably spend quite some time at work and if you are not feeling relatedness at work, you will not compensate that in your free time. One of the great opportunities that you have as a leader is to help find your people find meaning, contribute to a social purpose and experience healthy interpersonal relationship at work. As a leader you can encourage relatedness by challenging beliefs and practices that undermine people’s relatedness at work. But that means paying attention how they feel, gaining skills to deal with their emotions and it means getting personal.

Competence is our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It is demonstrating skill over time. It is feeling a sense of growth and flourishing.

ARC Domino Effect is important since all needs are connected and if one of them is not satisfied it can have a negative, domino effect on other two. If you don’t feel enough autonomy, you can start to question your competences and you start to go to work only for paycheck. You get into external motivational outlook and things will not turn up good.

The real story of motivation is that people are learners who long to grow, enjoy their work, be productive, make positive contributions and build lasting relationships.

The danger of drive

Be careful of being driven. If you are being driven, who is doing the driving? Drive Theory is one of the most popular motivational theories of the past one hundred years. The pervasive use of Drive Theory paves the way of acceptance of driving for results, driving for success and driving performance. The biggest cost of drive theory is that when needs are satisfied, no drive is left.

Psychological needs are not driving. When you satisfy them, you want more of it. People who experience ARC are thriving. They don’t need something else or someone else doing the driving.

People want to thrive. But psychological needs are fragile. In order not to jeopardize them we need to rely on strong self-regulation mechanism. Self-regulation is mindfully managing feelings, thoughts, values and purpose for immediate and sustain positive effort. Self-regulation is mechanism for countering the emotional triggers and distractions that tend to undermine the psychological needs.  Three potent techniques promote high-quality self-regulation (MVP):

  • mindfulness,
  • values and
  • purpose.

Mindfulness is noticing – being aware and attuned to what is happening in the present moment without judgment or an automatic reaction. It is a state of being but is also a skill that requires development through practice and patience. When people are not in control of their reactions, that can reflect low self-regulation that can result in one of three sub-optimal motivational outlooks: disinterested, external or imposed.

A space exists between what is happening to you and the way you react to it. Mindfulness is that space. This is where you can choose how to respond. Mindfulness can be a source of great autonomy feelings.

Values are premeditated, cognitive standards of what a person considers good or bad, worse, better or best. Values are enduring beliefs a person has chosen to accept as guidelines for how he works and lives his life. Individuals need to identify, develop, clarify, declare and operationalize their own work-related values and purpose and then determine how they align with the organization’s values. But people first need to have developed values. And with values it is the same as motivation, people always act based on values, it is the quality of them that matters.

To guide your people’s shift to an optimal motivational outlook, help them self-regulate by linking assigned tasks, goals or projects to their developed values. For you to do that, your people need to have developed values and to have you as a good role model.

Purpose is a deep and meaningful reason for doing something. Purpose is acting with noble intention, when your actions are infused with social significance. Peak performers are not goal driven. Peak performers are values based and inspired by a noble purpose. The danger of drive is that it distracts people from what really makes them dance. Collaborate with your employees to find alignment between their perception of their role-related values and purpose and your perception.

The danger of drive is that it promotes external motivators that undermine people’s psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence. Conditional support undermines people’s relatedness. You will get what you want, if you do what I want, doesn’t work as long-term motivational approach.

Motivation Is a Skill

Three skills are required for activating your own positive energy, vitality and sense of well-being:

  • Identify your current motivational outlook.
  • Shift to (or maintain) an optimal motivational outlook.
  • Reflect by noticing the difference between having a sub-optimal or optimal motivational outlook.

Teaching leaders about motivation is difficult because they believe their job is to motivate others, not themselves.

Shifting from three sub-optimal outlooks is important. Shifting to aligned outlook it important since then what you are doing is linked to your values. If you are disinterested you don’t have any energy at all and you would want to change that, at least for important things. If you are only driven by rewards and you are in external outlook, then you are sacrificing long-term for short-term gains. And imposed outlook is for most of the times imposed by yourself, so you can do the in order to get to real relatedness. Moving to integrated outlook brings you a sense of peace. The inherent outlook is the most naturally intrinsic outlook, what are you doing is a reward in and of itself. You can get into flow when inherent outlook is at its high. But if you can integrate flow with values and purpose, you are on a way to integrated. Inherent doesn’t need that much self-regulatory, you can get in flow just because something feels natural, without thinking about values and purpose.

The aim of shifting is to satisfy your psychological needs to ARC. When shifting use power of mindfulness, align with developed value, connect with noble purpose. Use the power of why, ask yourself constantly why are you doing what you are doing. Asking why over and over again, peels of layers of reasons and final motivational outlook can be revealed.

Reflecting may prove to be a difficult challenge, if you are a leader, who believes, there is no room for feelings in the workplace.

Well-being is at the heart of motivational outlook. It is a means to an end. With it, you can create value for yourself and your organization. Without it, short-term productivity is less probable and long-term growth is almost impossible.[1]

You must be adept at reflecting: acknowledging, recognizing, identifying and accepting your feelings. Think about your sense of well-being when you think about your goals.

Making Shift Happen

A motivational outlook conversation is an informal or formal opportunity to facilitate a person’s shift to an optimal motivational outlook. An outlook conversation may be appropriate when situation is negatively affecting individual, the team or the organization. To conduct a satisfying outlook conversation: do not problem solve, do not impose your values and do not expect the shift. On the other hand: do prepare, trust the process and reflect and close.

Reflective self-examination is a major opportunity to grow as a leader. Leadership is not a role; leadership is a practice. When you practice leadership, you invest the emotional labor required to observe what your people are experiencing, how they are feeling and why, and then discuss with them.

As a first step, you may need to work with your staff to develop and clarify their individual work-related values and purpose. Then, when you conduct a motivational outlook conversation, you will be more likely to facilitate a shift by helping them make the connection between their task, goal or situation and their developed values and sense of purpose.

Five Beliefs That Erode Workplace Motivation

Managers believe in external motivations of their employees, like wages, promotions and job security. But employees value high internal ones, like interesting work, growth and learning. People sometimes don’t understand themselves what is motivating them. People can’t ask for what they don’t know they need.

If we believe that only external motivation is possible, we give away power of action from managers. As mentioned, five beliefs are problematic for creating proper workplace motivation:

  • It is not personal, it’s just business.
  • The purpose of business is to make money.
  • Leaders are in a position of power.
  • The only thing that really matters is result.
  • If you cannot measure it, it doesn’t matter.

All emotions are acceptable, but not all behavior is acceptable. Notice, acknowledge and deal with a person’s emotions. What if you believe that purpose of business is to serve? Business must make a profit to sustain itself, but it is not a purpose of business. Focusing on profit is like playing the game with your eye on the scoreboard instead of the ball. Managers have power just by being managers. Even when you don’t have intentions to use your power, just having it creates a dynamic that requires your awareness and sensitivity. This are most usual types of power of managers:

  • Reward power: impersonal and personal.
  • Coercive power.
  • Referent power.
  • Legitimate power: reciprocity, equity power and dependence power.
  • Expert power.
  • Information power.

To avoid tyranny of results, you can: redefine and reframe results, set high-quality goals and do not imply that ends justify the means. In the end it is not only results, but also how and why people achieve them. As in life, the most rewarding aspects of work are those most difficult to measure.

The Promise of Optimal Motivation

Being a leader is a privileged position. Think in terms of what you want for your people, not from them. Ideal organization would have autonomous people that would hold themselves accountable; where meaningful relationships translate into organizational citizenship behaviors; and competence leads to a learning organization rich with innovation, quality products and services and streamline processes. People can flourish as they succeed. This is the promise of optimal motivation.

When using gamification as motivational technique you need to be careful. If you consider games and contest to motivate employees, don’t begin with the goal to create a gamelike approach and think about rewards versus motivation.

Rewards are necessary if people don’t have the self-regulation necessary to do the right thing through mindfulness, developed values or a noble purpose.


[1] Dr. Dirk Veldhort in the book on page 95

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