On motivation

Over the past few months, I have been lucky enough to be gifted not one, not two, but three talented people to join my team, and mixed in with the excitement of getting much needed help, I felt the burden of responsibility to get it right, hitting only those buttons that will ignite their passion and fuel their desire to invest in the mission, day in, day out. It is when the word ‘motivation’ started ringing in my head with more volume.

Motivation has always intrigued me deeply. The idea that you can get to the heart of what makes people’s nerves tickle, utterly fascinates me. It is a journey of investigation and discovery, like when you separate an onion from itself and carefully peel one of the thin and transparent epidermal layers that then allows you to examine the individual cells, in all their neatly arranged splendour.

The proposal that the keys to motivation are within our field of vision and our sphere of control is nearly ludicrous. It implies that what we have in our hands is a heavy tool of influence on people’s behaviour. I remember how enthusiastic I was to do the research for my assignment on motivation as part of the certificate in management competence, and how I tried to fit my chosen case studies inside the space of models by Maslow, Alderfer, etc.  

Since then, 20 years have passed, but none of the eagerness has waned. When I think about people and motivation, the first word that jumps around in my mind is ‘care’. The people I would like to motivate are people in my care. Next to that comes understanding. Motivation is all about understanding what it is that makes people willing to leave the comfort of their bed, complete with memory foam mattresses and pillows, their own temperature setting, and the softness of dust dancing on a band of sunlight, to take the hassle-full journey to the famous workplace where they need to compete with everyone else for space, ventilation, the right to complain about the temperature of the air-conditioning, and the luxury of disappearing into blind spots once every so often, away from supervisory eyes.

I turn to evolutionary psychology to answer big questions. To help me with this one, I was reminded of one hot afternoon in the summer of 2017, where, lounged on the sofa after the beach, I was inhaling the wonders that come out of the pages of Edward O. Wilson’s 1978 groundbreaking book ‘On Human Nature’; precisely the one where Wilson says that humans have no particular place to go, because as a species we lack any goal external to our own biological nature.

Before you judge this to be depressing, think again. It means that the key to understanding motivation is to identify those goals that are part of our human nature. That which drives us, biologically. In his brilliant ‘How the Mind Works’, cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker refers to the Triune Brain theory, and how the Reptilian Brain (the seat of the primitive and selfish emotions) drives the “Four F’s”: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and sexual behaviour. Later though, with his impeccable style, he insists that the goals installed in Homo sapiens are not just the Four F’s – high on the list are understanding the environment and securing the cooperation of others.

We cannot pursue all our goals at once, otherwise we will end up like Buridan’s ass, hungry and thirsty and standing halfway between a stack of hay and a pail of water, unable to commit our body to that single more important goal at a given point in time. And that is the key to why we have emotions – those “programmes” that evolved to solve this problem of coordination, helping us decide how to organise and synchronise things.

With this reasoning, we see motivation as a higher-order coordination system, a superior-type programme that manages the large number of specialised emotions that rage inside our chest like wild birds. It follows that if I were to give you my “top 10 elements for shaping motivation”, having emotional literacy – understanding which emotions drive an individual – would be high on the list.

The key to unlock motivation, therefore, is to aim for alignment, making sure that the person is not only able to ‘fit’ within the organisation with ease and comfort, but is also convinced that the outcome of whatever it is they are doing runs parallel to the goals and sub-goals of their own purpose. Work doesn’t need to be at the core of people’s life or at the topmost of their priorities for them to be motivated to put in as much effort in what it is you do. Our task as leaders, as mentors, and as support centres, becomes simpler – to ensure that rather than conflicting with the individual goals, our organisation’s objectives provide the space and scope for personal synergy and reinforcement. 

And once you get to that delicate awareness – that motivation doesn’t depend on the rough forces of push and pull but rather on a gentler backing and smooth orientation – you also realise that, within this system, energy flows both ways. Consumed as we are with the task of holding the matchbox in our hand, we might think we are the givers and it is only fair to take the credit for the progress that we see, whereas in reality it works both ways. We are receiving a whole lot of esteem that gets injected back into the system, creating a virtuous cycle of motivation where people do things to their heart’s content.

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