The Difficult Nature of Motivation

A guest post by Francis Briers

Motivation is a word that is thrown around a lot in organisations.  When talking about Leadership, “motivating others” is often considered a key skill.  I can understand why this is especially in corporate environments where there are significant numbers of roles which are essentially transactional or unqualified positions.  Call centres, post rooms, cleaning companies, or packaging depots spring to mind but I’m sure there are many more.  While some people are very happy in their jobs in these kinds of environments and will take pride in doing good work, there are many others for whom it will be “Just a job” and eventually you may end up with a large number of disengaged staff who will be minimally productive.  I have seen all kinds of tactics employed to try and drive up productivity with greatly varying degrees of success, from Jack Welch-style hard line measures of raising the bar so the lowest performers can be “legitimately” fired; through to regular incentives and rewards, be it financial bonuses, cake day, or going home early.  Motivation is not just an issue in terms of motivating others, however; it is also an issue in terms of motivating ourselves.  Anyone who has ever tried to create a new habit or establish a new practice will know that this can be no mean feat.

In this article I want to look at personal motivation first and then expand this out to organisational motivation.  I’m not saying I have all the answers, you may not even get any answers from this article, but my hope would be that it may set you asking some of the right questions

One of the first issues we have to deal with when considering motivation is excellently addressed by Alfie Kohn.  He’s best known for his writing on parenting and schooling, although he has written about workplaces too and I’d heartily recommend his work if you are interested in any of these fields.  As a new parent I was reading his book ‘Unconditional Parenting’ and it was something he wrote there which inspired this article.  The issue which I referred to as one of the first we must address is what kind of motivation do you wish to create?  The primary distinction is: intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.  Mr Kohn describes it thus:

“Intrinsic motivation basically means you like what you’re doing for it’s own sake, whereas extrinsic motivation means you do something as a means to an end – in order to get a reward or avoid a punishment.  It’s the difference between reading a book because you want to find out what happens in the next chapter and reading because you’ve been promised a sticker or a pizza for doing so.

The key point here isn’t just that extrinsic motivation is different from the intrinsic kind, or even that it’s inferior to intrinsic, although both statements are true.  What I want to emphasise is that extrinsic motivation is likely to erode intrinsic motivation.  As extrinsic goes up, intrinsic tends to come down.  The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in what they had to do to get the reward.  Of course there are always qualifications and exceptions to any one-sentence summary of a psychological finding, but that basic proposition has been proven by literally scores of studies with people of different ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds – and with a variety of different tasks and rewards.”

Many of you, having read this may be realising how much trouble we are in.  Almost all of our systems from when we are young children right up to our adult workplaces are seemingly kept running by extrinsic forms of motivation.  Thanks to many of the more common books and programmes on parenting strategies, subtle punishment such as “Time-Outs” and the “Naughty Step” are now the most common ways of disciplining children.   Extrinsic motivation.  I remember working hard to try and get a Gold Star for my work at school as a young child and if anything these kinds of rewards are even more used now. Extrinsic motivation.  Then my work started being graded and in the subjects I liked I really wanted to get and ‘A’.  Extrinsic motivation.  Similar forms of grading were used right through college and university.  At work we have performance reviews and while these can be used as opportunities for honest conversation and feedback which can lead to a deep understanding of value and growth, all too often they become another kind of assessment.  This is especially true in large organisations where reporting has to be generated from these performance reviews – scoring is the simplest way of creating comparable assessments.  Extrinsic motivation.  I’m not saying we should wholesale throw out all of these methods and approaches from the various areas of our lives, I’m just trying to make the point that if intrinsic motivation is more effective, and it is eroded by the use of extrinsic motivation then even just trying to motivate ourselves we are fighting an uphill battle.  The vast majority of us in the modern Western world are indoctrinated into the systemic use of extrinsic motivation from a very young age and right the way up through adulthood.  If you genuinely believe that “the kids of today” lack a proper work ethic and if, thinking this you want to understand why then this endemic of extrinsic motivation is a great place to start.  The whole picture of why things are done this way, what exactly constitutes extrinsic motivation from the very subtle to the more obvious and from punishments through to rewards, and ideas on how to stop using punishments and rewards are thoroughly explored by Alfie Kohn in his books.  His breadth of experience and depth of research is far greater than mine will probably ever be on this subject.  What I would like to consider here is ways that we can re-build our personal capacity for intrinsic motivation, and then to look at how that understanding might apply to organisations.

One of the key areas of experience which I think could bear fruit in looking at re-building capacity for intrinsic motivation is martial arts.  I’m pretty sure that similar wisdom will be accessible from many practices which are engaged in over many years but martial arts has a particular resonance for me.  As I describe further, perhaps you can reflect on your own practices.  When most people begin martial arts training there is usually a clear motivation, and it is usually extrinsic in nature (i.e. there is a desired outcome I am working rather than just doing it because I love it).  Some likely ones are: getting fit, being able to defend myself, looking tough, getting a black belt (status), or even just because it’s cool!  In all of these examples the motivation is not just for the love of the art.  At least some of these were true for me when I began martial arts training over a dozen years ago and probably a few more besides.  Let’s face it, when you start something you usually don’t know what it’s like so there will likely be something else you’re after to begin with.  However, my experience is that over time these initial reasons have fallen away.  This may not be the case for everyone, but it is the case for many of the serious martial artists I have spoken to.  Over time I have come to practice the art just for its own sake.  Even when I hit up against some resistance or boredom, still the reason I return to practice is because of the love of the thing, not some goal or agenda.  I think developing this kind of ongoing practice over many years has the potential to help us regain a capacity for intrinsic motivation.  If the practice of extrinsic motivation erodes intrinsic motivation then I would suggest that ongoing commitment to a practice which is intrinsically motivated has a good chance of helping us regain our capacity of intrinsic motivation.  We may then be able to apply this form of motivation in other areas of our lives.  I don’t think martial arts is the only practice which can help us develop or re-find our capacity for intrinsic self-motivation, in fact perhaps anything when practiced long enough and consistently enough becomes something you do for the love of it rather than for an external benefit.  Certainly I have seen the same kind of journey for a number for people with meditation.  At first they do it because they want to be calmer, or more centred, or more spiritual, or to meet women (or men!), or to look cool, or to get enlightened, or many other things, but over time it just becomes something they do.  Just for it’s own sake.  This is the heart of intrinsic motivation.

So how is all this applied?  It ain’t easy, I’ll give you that.  In order to reap the benefits of an intrinsic motivation building practice you have to first find a practice you connect with enough and then you have to establish it as a practice.  The first bit is really a matter of trying things out or reflecting on what you do already and I have a book coming out soon on turning regular activities into “practices”.  It’s called “A little book on finding your Way: Zen and the Art of Doing stuff.”  In terms of the second bit – establishing this thing you do as a practice – you are essentially building a whole new habit from scratch.  Considering the extent to which we have been fed extrinsic motivation I think it’s almost inevitable you might have to “reward” yourself a bit at first even if it’s only with the idea of losing some weight or being calmer.  Just bear in mind the long-term picture too as you go so that you have a fighting chance of eventually letting go of the “rewards and punishments” method of keeping practising.  One thing to watch out for is internalising rewards and punishment rather than truly generating intrinsic motivation.  One example of this might be this internal idea of “this practice is making me better at…” which is still an extrinsic motivator, albeit subtly so.  A much more insidious example and one I have been tripped up by before is kicking yourself out of bed: the voice that internally whack’s you on the head and says “come on, get out of bed (or off the sofa) and do your practice..”  It may seem like a good way to get into motion and certainly for me it was such a habit I didn’t even realise I was doing it for a long time, but it is a form of self-punishment and therefore not only is it a subtle form of extrinsic motivation but it is also essentially self-abusive.  It means your carefully nurtured practice will be built on a foundation of aggression and that is neither healthy, nor effective long term.

You may be getting the sense that to be truly intrinsically motivated is a rare thing, and frankly, I think it is.  We have created a culture based almost entirely on extrinsic motivation.  So how do we even approach changing that organisationally?  It’s a big question and not one with a simple answer.  As with changing it personally (or individually) it is potentially an uphill struggle, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for it.  Imagine a workplace where no-one ever had to be disciplined and a manager is there to support innovation and optimisation of resource rather than “managing people”.  One step could be for managers to take both more and less power.  They would need to have more power to change the way the work gets done if they are to empower the team to do the work in the way that best suits their preferences, talents and personal motivation on any given day.  I have at times been amazed at the jobs people love doing.  There have been moments in corporate life where a job I’m dreading has been picked up by someone else with glee – we both go away happy!  Similar things happen at home with my Wife doing jobs and enjoying them when I really didn’t want to do them and vice-versa.  This kind of give and take requires flexibility which the defined roles of corporate life does not always allow for.  The manager would need to take less power in terms of how they dictate the work.  For the flexibility I have just described to be effective, team members need to have more room to choose the tasks they do.  Obviously this won’t always work but I would suggest it will work more often than you might think.  Once again, I have been amazed at the jobs people will happily take on and enjoy that I wouldn’t have picked up without serious coercion!  Difference can be the source of effectiveness if properly taken advantage of.  In this step of the manager taking on less power, a key ingredient will be real deep listening so that the talents, skills, and desires of the team members get heard.  This kind of listening takes time, it requires us to slow down.  Long term it will make for a more effective team, but short term it requires precious time so it is easy to forget to do it or dismiss it as an unnecessary luxury.  I offer this to you not as someone with a perfect record when I have been in management roles but as someone who has made this very mistake and paid for it.  Whether you want to work for intrinsic motivation or not, I’d say real deep listening is one of the most vital skills of an effective manager.

As I’ve said I’m not going to give you all the answers here.  If you really want to create an environment where intrinsic motivation is the norm you are looking at a significant culture shift which begins with the individual.  In making this culture shift you will need to give up using extrinsic motivators which will make for a bumpy ride for a while as people lose their incentives and aren’t being poked into action by fear of the consequences.  You need to recruit people who want something more than ‘just a job.’  Many, many employers say that’s the kind of people they want, but the hard part is then delivering a work environment that will actually engage these people when you find them.  It’s a tough question to ask yourself, but if you are a leader in an organisation it’s a vital one: do you really want people who want more than “just a job”?  Are you willing to do the work to keep them?  Hopefully this article has helped you to see the playing field you’re dealing with when it comes to transforming your culture of motivation, and maybe it’s set you to asking some of the right questions, both individually and organisationally.


  1. David Cuthbertson