The Secret of Motivating Your People (Hint: It's Not Exactly Up to You)

If you’ve been in a leadership position for very long, you’ve probably struggled with the challenge of motivating your people.

Perhaps you’ve tried various techniques like the carrot and stick, the inspirational speech, or annual bonuses.

Maybe you’ve even read books on motivation like Dan Pink’s Drive or perused some of the academic literature on it.

This is all well and good, but all these efforts assume one key thing: that you can actually motivate your people.

The truth is that you can’t.

Because they are the only ones that can do that.

We’re All Needy

Research by Dr. Steven Reiss, emeritus professor of psychology at The Ohio State University, says that motivation is innate. His research shows that there are 16 universal motives that impel us to action.

They are:

1.    Acceptance: the need for approval
2.    Beauty: the need for an aesthetically-appealing environment
3.    Curiosity: the need to understand
4.    Eating: strength of interest in food
5.    Expedience: the desire to take practical advantage of opportunities
6.    Family: the need to spend time with family
7.    Idealism: the need to improve society
8.    Interdependence, motivation to rely on others
9.    Order: the need to be organized
10.    Physical Activity: the need for exercise
11.    Power: the need to lead
12.    Saving: the need to collect
13.    Social Contact: the need for friends
14.    Status: the need for prestige
15.    Tranquility: the need to play it safe
16.    Vengeance: strength of competitive spirit

Each of us carries these motivations within us to different degrees.

And it’s up to each of us to act up them.

What You Need to Know About Motivation

Reiss bases his approach to motivation on several key principles:

1. Universal Motives: Certain motives are common to everyone and deeply rooted in human nature.

2. Intrinsic Motivation: For each person, intrinsic motivation is the combination of the universal motives and how much we want of them. The aggregate across all 16 motives constitutes a person’s unique “motivational signature.”

3. Relationship Compatibility: People are naturally motivated to assert their basic motives in relationships. People with similar motivational profiles usually get along better than those with divergent profiles. This can be summed up as “birds of a feather flock together.”

4. Strong Basic Desires: Strong intrinsic motivations are satisfied in multiple ways. For instance, if you have naturally hearty appetite, you will eat many different kinds of food.

5. The satisfaction of each motive produces an intrinsically valued feeling of joy. So people behave as if they are trying to maximize their experiences of their particular intrinsic motives.

5. Self-Hugging: We think our values are best, not just for us, but for everyone. Therefore, we pressure others to change their motivations to our way thinking and believe they will be better off for it.

6.  Motivational Set Point: individuals are motivated to aim for a particular level of motivational satisfaction. Any variation above or below this set point generates a corresponding reaction back toward that person’s “mean” or set point.

Intrinsic Motivation in Practice

For most people there are a few basic desires that are stronger than the rest. These are the motivators the help explain behavior. For example, some people spend their time satisfying their desire for curiosity, others seek power, while other are out for vengeance.

What actually propels motivation are the differences between the amount of an intrinsic motivator that is desired and the amount that was recently experienced.

For example, when a person experiences more power than he or she desires, the individual is motivated to be power-less for a period of time to balance toward the set point.

Conversely, when a person experiences less power than the set point, the individual is motivated to be powerful, perhaps manifested by domineering behavior for a period of time.

Implications of Motivation for Leaders

1. Remember that everyone has a unique set of motivators, their “motivational signature.” Everyone manifests their motives in a unique, individualistic way. Further, everyone prioritizes their motives in differing degrees.

2. Get to know your people’s most important motivators. That way you can work to set the conditions so that their motivational needs are satisfied. The leader’s job is to ensure that the organization’s culture provides support for ongoing satisfaction of the members’ motives.

3. Tailor your approach to take into account each person’s motivations. You can leverage the idea of motivational signatures to deliver more targeted feedback while also seeking to facilitate employee performance and job satisfaction.

4. Leverage motives to build teamwork. Since “birds of a feather” flock together, an astute leader can group together people with similar motivational profiles to facilitate teamwork. Similarly, the leader can diagnose team dysfunction by analyzing motivational compatibility.

5. Don’t be a self-hugger. Make sure you know your own motivational signature, so that you can better monitor the way you communicate with those around you. By doing so you can be more mindful of imposing your particular intrinsic motives on others. Similarly, by understanding the motives of others, you can be more sympathetic toward their point of view.

Getting Motivated About Motivation

Understanding what motivates your people in terms of the 16 universal motives is a powerful tool to have in your leadership tool kit.

Rather than trying to be the motivator for your people, instead figure out what lights their internal fire and then set the conditions for them.


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