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!
What are you going to do when you grow up, I asked the 17 years old José Angel in the remote countryside village of Lagartillo in Northern Nicaragua. What I got for an answer was an enthusiastically delivered two-hour long lecture about the revolutionary history of Nicaragua and how radios played a central role in this process. He wanted to join this historical chain and study media communications to become a host of his own political radio show in the future. His performance left me energized and thinking how enormous impact such young people with a calling can have for the future of a country.
In his book The Path to Purpose, William Damon argues that the best thing that can happen to a young person is to find her or his calling: ”This clarity of purpose generates in them a prodigious amount of extra positive energy, which not only motivates them to pursue their goals passionately but also to acquire the skills and knowledge they need for this task. In the process, they become very good learners; and they develop a practical effectiveness unusual for people their age.”
Here I was listening to a living example of Damon’s argument. A young person whose life was not revolving around himself and his immediate gratifications. Unlike most western 17-year-olds – the past me included – whose long-term visions meant asking where is the party next Saturday this guy was carried forward with a passion to make a difference. This didn’t mean that he would turn a blind eye to the delights of the youth either – from his tales I understood that his enthusiasm was well received by many girls – but simply that his life had a purpose that reached beyond simple hedonistic pleasures.
Even the language barrier couldn’t stop him from delivering his lecture. He told how his grandparents – along with the majority of the population – had been illiterate and how his grandfather had listened to a clandestino radio station during the Somoza dictatorship. He told how these revolutionary radio stations had delivered education to the villages, told news that the dictator tried to hide, mobilized people to counter the regime and encouraged their spirits by playing revolutionary songs. He told how the revolution finally succeeded, but also about the problems that his country encountered during the following years. Nevertheless, he had great faith in the current government. With a zest he told what good things the government had brought to this village during the last few years, most important being 24 hour electricity and a secondary school.
For him it was clear that if his home country wanted to carry this torch of development into the future, the engagement of young people into the local and nation-wide politics was the key. They must be educated to understand the importance of the political process in making the world a better place. He didn’t want his fellow youngsters to turn into passive and selfish idlers for whom the high-point of life is winning the NHL tournament on PlayStation and whose horizon is narrowed to include only me, myself and I. He wanted to make a difference by helping young people in his home-country to find a cause beyond themselves.
As said his own recipe for contributing to this development was radio. He wanted to study media communications in the university and after that host a radio show of his own in which he educates people about the political matters and plays Nicaraguan songs that promote the revolution. His own grandfathers liberation from ignorance started from listening to radio. He wanted to offer the same opportunity for the generations to come.
Throughout his tale I kept coming back to wondering how dramatically different his appearance was compared to an average seventeen-year-old in my youth. We were not interested in great causes, we were interested in who could buy us the alcohol for the weekends party and if some specific girls were coming there. Future meant for us studying and building a successful career. Pleasures in the short term, success in the long term, those were our goals. In other words, our lives revolved around ourselves and the satisfaction of our personal needs. He had found something better.
Naturally, there will be many people who will tell him that his dream is not worth fighting for. They will tell him that radio is a media of the past, nowadays TV is the only media that matters. They will tell him that his ideals and his understanding of the Nicaraguan politics are naïve. When he enters the university he will surely encounter many objections against his political ideals and his ideas of fulfilling them. These objections and the acquired knowledge will surely more or less redirect his calling into new directions. So it might very well be that he never realizes his vision as it stands today.
What I am sure about, however, is that these encounters will not take away the wave of positive energy that carries him forward. And wherever such a great concentration of willpower is heading at, there will be those who want to support him and there will be significant results. His goals might change along the way but I am sure that the new ones will be as filled with meaning as the present one. He is heading towards a meaningful existence – a life that is dedicated to making the world a better place through the means that he finds most fitting for himself. What greater blessing could a young person have?