The 3 Secrets of Motivating and Inspiring Others

motivating and inspiring others

Motivating others - that's a tough one, right? In this post, I share the three secrets to motivating and inspiring others. Hint: none of these secrets involve spending more money! Here are some of the key findings from scientific research about what is highly motivating to most of today's knowledge workers and how to apply these insights to your daily leadership efforts.

1.  Leverage Intrinsic Motivators to Drive Performance

According to best-selling author Daniel Pink in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, when it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators (like money, rewards, or ratings) –doesn't work and often does harm. Pink describes a need for an upgrade and how scientific findings now show the way. This new approach says that three essential elements to motivation are, for most of today's knowledge workers, all intrinsic (internal - from within the person) motivators: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy is the desire to direct our own lives. People need autonomy over:

  • Task – what they do;
  • Time – when they do it;
  • Team – who they do it with; and/or
  • Technique – how they do it.

Mastery is the urge to get better and better at something that matters. People are intrinsically motivated to improve performance in what they care about.

Purpose is the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. If we can see the connection between our activities and a greater purpose, we are much more motivated to perform those activities well.

Watch this excellent TED Talk Dan Pink gave about this book - it's one of the most popular TED Talks ever!

2.  Reduce Emphasis on Extrinsic Motivators to Sustain High Performance

As we just discovered, intrinsic motivation (such as autonomy, mastery, and purpose) trumps extrinsic. However, the presence of any strong extrinsic motivation, even if coupled with strong intrinsic motivation, actually reduces performance! A paper newly published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that while every task typically is associated with both intrinsic and extrinsic (or instrumental) motivators, the people who thrive in that activity tend to be those who do NOT focus on the extrinsic motives. Here is a description of the study by two of the paper’s authors in a recent New York Times  article:

 “We analyzed data drawn from 11,320 cadets in nine entering classes at the United States Military Academy at West Point, all of whom rated how much each of a set of motives influenced their decision to attend the academy. The motives included things like a desire to get a good job later in life (an instrumental motive) and a desire to be trained as a leader in the United States Army (an internal motive).
How did the cadets fare, years later? And how did their progress relate to their original motives for attending West Point?
We found, unsurprisingly, that the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers. Also unsurprisingly, cadets with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service — unless (and this is the surprising part) they also had strong instrumental motives.
Remarkably, cadets with strong internal and strong instrumental motives for attending West Point performed worse on every measure than did those with strong internal motives but weak instrumental ones. They were less likely to graduate, less outstanding as military officers and less committed to staying in the military.”

Let's bring it out of the military and into a typical organization. What does that mean? Let's say an analyst performs a thorough data review and writes an excellent analysis report showing the key findings of her review (intrinsic motivation). She gets a monetary bonus for the report (extrinsic motivation). This study’s findings suggest that if the analyst is driven by her intrinsic motives of excellent analysis, she will perform well and become a better and better analyst. She will also be a more successful employee. Based on this study’s findings, the more she focused on any extrinsic motives like performance ratings, rewards, or monetary bonuses, her analysis quality would actually go down over time and her performance as an analyst would suffer.

Amazing, right? So, more money is actually not equal to more motivation. Rewards may not create improved performance. Focus on intrinsic motivation to create meaningful, sustained performance improvement. [TWEET IT!]

So: structure work tasks, activities and projects in a way that ensures that extrinsic consequences do not become motives. As these researchers suggest, “helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counter-intuitive though it may seem — their financial success.”

Caveat: Extrinsic motivation is still beneficial for routine, non-creative work

The one exception to this suggestion is this: According to Pink’s findings, extrinsic motivators can be effective for rule-based routine tasks – because there’s little intrinsic motivation to undermine and not much creativity to crush. You’ll increase your chances of success using rewards for routine tasks if you:

  • Offer rationale for why the task is necessary. A job that is not inherently interesting can become more meaningful if it’s a part of a larger purpose.
  • Acknowledge that the task is boring.
  • Allow people to complete the task their own way (autonomy).

3.  Energize and Empower BOTH Head and Heart

elephant and rider

Chip and Dan Heath, in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, say that to inspire people to take action, we need to mind three aspects: the head, the heart, and the situation. They describe a meaningful metaphor, originally written by Dr. Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom that likens people to a Rider and an Elephant. Our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. To inspire, energize, and empower people to take action, the Heath Brothers say we must do three things:

  • Direct the Rider. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity, so provide clear directions.
  • Motivate the Elephant. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion (because self-control is an exhaustible resource). It’s critical that you engage people’s emotional side.
  • Shape the Path. What looks like a people problem is often a situation (i.e. “Path”) problem. When you shape the Path, you make behavior change more likely, no matter what’s happening with the Rider and Elephant.

This framework works not just for those with authority – it works for everyone.

To summarize, intrinsic motivation, like autonomy, mastery, and purpose, trumps extrinsic motivation. And not only should we focus on creating more and better connection to intrinsic motivators, we should consciously reduce any emphasis on extrinsic ones because their presence can actually lower performance. But to really drive improvement in performance and change in behavior, we must energize and empower not only reason and logic (the head) but also connect with people's emotions and clarify their path.

What do you think? What's your one takeaway from this post that you are going to implement to help you ratchet up your motivation efforts? Comment below. I look forward to getting the dialogue going! 

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