The four ultimate elements of motivation: How to get the best out of you and others? (And how robots will save the world)

Posted on July 2 2012 by frank

What motivates you? Ultimately. We are motivated by many issues: by fame, friendship, food, and football. But what is the structure of human motivation in general? What are the basic elements of the things that make us move? Understanding what pulls your strings makes you more capable of manipulating them yourself, being in charge of your own life! As a leader, understanding them helps you get the most out of the people around you.

Motivation is about how to move oneself and others to act. There is basically two forms of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation means being motivated, not by the activity itself, but by the things it brings: getting rewards, escaping punishments, getting good grades. Often it is about the fear that otherwise others will not like me – that the group will abandon me. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is about being motivated by the activity itself. The motivation flows from inwards, from one’s values, natural curiosity, or one’s passions. Here I will concentrate on the elements of intrinsic motivation. Why? Because if you want to get the most out of yourself and others, if you want to make yourself and others thrive and flourish, then what you want is intrinsic motivation.

The leading psychological theory about intrinsic motivation proposes that there are essentially three elements that give rise to it. In their self-determination theory, Professors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci propose that human motivation can be approached in the same way that the motivation of any self-determined being can be approached. And they see that certain elements motivate human beings in all contexts: (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) relatedness. Sense of being the author of one’s own life is strengthened when the person feels that the activity he or she is engaged with is equipped with one or more of them. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Autonomy. The best way to ruin someone’s inner motivation is to start controlling it. Decades of research has shown that external rewards and punishments decreases the person’s intrinsic motivation. This is true in work environments where controlling managers produce subordinates who no longer feel that they have the ownership over their own work projects. It is true in schools where controlling teachers are able to suck the childrens’ natural curiosity and willingness to learn out of the learning experience. And it is true in one’s personal life where it has been shown that a wide range of life goals are better achieved as long as one feels one has autonomy in deciding how to achieve them.

Competence Another truth about human motivation is that we like to do things that we perform well. Sense of competence is a powerful motivator: when we feel that we are at the top of our game we rarely need any other motivators to continue. In fact, in these situations the activity flows so strongly and naturally that we become so absorbed in it that the question of motives doesn’t even arise. It is thus important to make sure one’s activities are designed so that they give enough challenge. Too little challenge and we get bored, too much challenge and we get anxious. But with the right amount of challenge, we feel that we are able to use the full range of our talent. And that is an energizing feeling.

Relatedness Ever since the times in the savannah, most of human accomplishments have been achieved in groups. Be it the hunting down of a mammoth, the farming of the family fields, or the building of a successful dot.com enterprise, we perform best as part of a team. Accordingly, the sense of relatedness is an important motivator. As human beings, we have a basic need to belong, to be a part of a bigger group in which we feel recognized and valued. That’s why being part of a group with a common goal is also a powerful motivator. Excitement is contagious and relatedness increases vitality.

But what if there is a fourth basic form of motivation that also makes us tick? What if a tendency to care about the well-being of others is also coded into our basic DNA? As social animals we are not only interested to make sure that others care about us. We also instinctively care about the others. Thus, we feel a sense of accomplishment and meaningfulness when we are able to engage in activities that contribute to the well-being of other people. During the last decade, more and more successful entrepreneurs have noticed that even though their work is fulfilling in all three dimensions above, they still lack something. And that something is the sense of making something valuable, contributing to the making of a better world for all of us. Therefore it can be suggested that there is a fourth basic human need: The willingness to make a meaningful contribution.

Take Zen Robotics as an example. The founders are all serial entrepreneurs with a number of success stories behind them. Their expertise and sense of excitement is about robots. They knew that with their experience, they could accomplish something with robots that others could only dream about. But this time they wanted to accomplish something that would not only be cool and sell well, but something that would make the world a better place. The only question was, where to find valuable enough target for their enthusiasm? Their answer was clean technology. As they themselves put it: “The solution to the world’s waste problem is called ZenRobotics Recycler“.

These guys seem to know their intrinsic motivation. As entrepreneurs they have the freedom to do things their own way; in other words, they have found autonomy. At the same time they have found a highly challenging task that makes sure they are using their full competence. Their team spirit is great, thus they have a strong sense of relatedness within their company. And through their work they aim to contribute to solving an alarming global problem. Intrinsic motivation? These guys have it.

Do you as a leader want to get the most out of your employees? Do you as a teacher want to get the most out of your students? Do you as a parent want to make sure that your children will live a fulfilling life? If so, make sure that you aren’t suppressing them through control or depleting their energy through bad social relations. Instead, give them room for autonomy, support their growth in competence – and make sure that they feel that they are contributing towards something meaningful. Thus you wake up engagement and passion. That is the way to results that really matter!

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