Motivation 101b: The Drive to Thrive

There’s a creation story from India that goes something like this:  The world began as a smooth sea of milk.  Then a small wavelet formed.  Forever after, that wavelet was torn between loving its own identity and wanting to rejoin the whole from which it came.

Biologists and philosophers (and Indian storytellers) agree that, like this wavelet, all living things — even your employees — have these two basic drives or impulses.

Last week, I urged you to view motivation through that little wavelet’s dual lens:  the need for self-determination, and the need for connection.  Assuming your employees are in fact human, you might as well capitalize on these drives, rather than resist or thwart them.  Because if you capitalize on them, you tap into their natural motivation.

Let’s take one at a time.  Today, self-determination.

If you’ve ever raised a two-year-old, you know how natural the drive for self-determination is.  And does it ever go away?  Well, it might get softened.  It might get beaten down.  It might go hiding.  It might get twisted into dysfunctional behavior.  It might succumb to fear.  But it doesn’t ever go away.

Raise your hand if you enjoy being micro-managed…  See what I mean?

As Alfie Kohn says in Punished By Rewards, “Strip away self-determination, and part of the spirit dies.”

Let me summarize all this in a single word (a single, non-hyphenated word):  choice.  To motivate optimally, the enlightened leader gives employees as much choice as she can allow, given:

  • the constraints under which she’s operating
  • the competencies of the employee
  • the trust the employee has earned
  • the employee’s level of self-discipline and self-motivation
  • the degree of choice appropriately reserved for other stakeholders

Raise your hand if you enjoy being micromanaged …

A study in California years ago found surprisingly high levels of job satisfaction in a sanitation company.  Sanitation workers? These folks pick up garbage all day!  How could they have job satisfaction?  Turned out it was about choice.  Within certain parameters — e.g. number of cans picked up per day — employees were allowed to decide what to wear, when to work, what route to take, whom they worked with, how to outfit the truck, etc.

The business case is clear:  When employees are allowed to make their own decisions, they become more energized.  That breeds better performance.  Better performance breeds confidence and competence — leading to even better performance.

Self-determination also fuels creativity. What organization doesn’t want its employees to think creatively?

Still, allowing employee choice can be scary, and the benefits can sometimes feel subtle.  But the effects of denying self-determination can also be subtle — in fact, insidious.  A school district in New York for years had a policy that allowed administrators to take whatever vacation time they needed.  They took on average 15 days per year.  Then, a new superintendent concluded this policy was simply too open-ended and susceptible to abuse.  So he took away choice:  he built four weeks vacation into all their contracts.  Twenty days.  And guess what?  They took them.

YOUR PATH FORWARD: Whatever the job responsibilities, whatever the project or task, there’s always wiggle room for employees to make choices — if not about the content of the work, at least about the process.  Every time you assign a task or a project, be creative in allowing as much employee choice — self-determination — as is reasonable, given the bullet points above.

About the Author

Steve Motenko
Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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