7 Rock-Solid Leadership Lessons from Decades of Research on Motivation

The fact that you’re reading this article means that you were impelled to action.

You were motivated.

Perhaps it was because of an internal need to learn more about leadership or to become a better leader.  Maybe your boss told you to read it or you’re doing some research for a paper.

Whatever the reason, you chose to act, you put forth effort, and you took the time to complete the task—all of which are the constituent elements of motivation.

Motivation is an indisputable part of leadership, especially because as a leader you have a great deal of control over the work environment.

The question for you is if that environment is inspiring or crushing motivation.

In either case, the following seven findings from over 80 years of formal research into motivation will help you better understand motivation and what you can do influence the motivational situation for yourself and your people.

1. You have needs. Your psychological needs are the basis of motivation. Needs affect your survival and well-being. They are physiological, psychological, and spiritual. Satisfying your needs is pleasurable. Need frustration is painful, or at least uncomfortable, but it can also be life-threatening (e.g. starvation). First articulated by Abraham Maslow, needs are front and center when it comes to motivation. Understanding the needs of your employees can thus help you understand what motivates them. Then you can create conditions to satisfy their need—as that enhances the goals and health of the organization of course.

2. Take this job and shove it. Job characteristics matter. Research over the years (e.g. Herzberg, Hackman, Oldham) has established that task variety, autonomy, recognition, opportunities to increase skills, and feedback all serve to motivate people. Motivation drops to the extent that these characteristics of the job are missing. So, make sure you explicitly address them in your hiring, job development, personal development processes to keep motivation high.

3. Whatever the mind can believe, you can achieve. The value you place on a goal or outcome and whether you expect to obtain it affects your motivation. For instance, you may place high value on winning the lottery, but you may not expect it to happen. In turn, this could lower you motivation to buy a ticket. Or, perhaps an employee comes into work early and stays late, expecting that this behavior will lead to a promotion down the road.

4. And justice for all. Organizational justice—fairness and trust in the workplace—matter. When individuals believe they are being treated fairly, they tend to exhibit higher levels of job performance and more organizational citizenship behavior. They also engage in fewer conflicts and less counterproductive activity. Motivation drops when a person thinks that someone is getting a better deal, if processes are biased against an individual or group, or when leadership is perceived as being unfair.

5. I believe in me. The beliefs you have about your abilities (self-efficacy) impact your success. The stronger your belief in yourself, the more likely you are to be successful. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to relish taking on difficult tasks, work harder to overcome tough challenges, and persist in them.

6. Think big. Setting goals works. Performance goes up when goals are set. Especially specific goals that are hard but achievable. When those goals are committed to as a team and linked to mutually valued outcomes, the resulting performance is even better. Well-constructed goals focus attention, energize effort, inspire persistence, and activate resilience in the pursuit of the goal’s achievement.

7. So you think you know us. Finding out what your people are thinking is an indispensable way to diagnose the good, the bad, and the ugly going on in your organization. There are a plethora of well-constructed surveys on employee attitudes out there. Use them to understand at a deeper and more comprehensive level what’s going on in their heads. And then use that data to figure out how to improve the motivational environment of the organization. Or if you don’t want to be that formal, just walk around and talk to them. In all likelihood, you’ll find out plenty.

As a leader, your job is to bring people together to achieve common goals. Leadership is thus fundamentally wrapped up with motivation.

Now you know 7 well-founded principles of motivation. Put them to good use to bolster the motivational environment surrounding you.

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