Money makes the world go round? No way. Motivation makes the world go round! Motivation is an invisible force hidden in every single one of us. It’s the fire in us that determines our actions and decides where we invest our time and energy. We are motivated to a greater or a lesser extent depending on our respective daily condition, the environment, and interests. At times of high motivation, even difficult tasks can be a piece of cake and we are able to achieve incredible things. What’s behind the motivation mechanism? How can we increase motivation based on scientifically substantiated findings? We will get to the bottom of these questions in our current blog.
Motivation directly influences our well-being and our performance.
The reason why we are more motivated than others in certain situations depends on our personality, our direct environment and cultural factors. The detailed mechanisms that govern this are still unknown and topic of current motivation research. One thing is certain: Motivation has a direct impact on or well-being and our performance. However, this relation is not a one-way street, it works both ways. For example, if our well-being is affected by bad working conditions this can in turn affect our motivation and performance negatively (Iaffaldano, Muchinsky 1985).
Even though there is no general formula that describes motivation completely, a large number of scientific findings are available to guide us in order to motivate ourselves and our environment to deliver top performances.
Basic needs like autonomy, competence, and belonging are the main source for motivation.
Everybody has basic needs that we try to satisfy by our actions and our behavior. On the other hand, these basic needs are an independent source for motivation, i.e. our motivation is increased if our environment supports these needs. New scientific findings suggest that the trio autonomy, belonging, and competence are central psychological basic needs which have developed in the course of evolutionary history (Sheldon, Gunz 2009). Autonomy refers to the need to influence your own destiny instead of being at the mercy of external factors. Our preference to live in groups and networks is rooted in our need for belonging. The third fundamental need is reflected in our desire to be appreciated, accepted, and to advance further.
Even if these three fundamental needs may sound simple and logical, they are not always taken into account in practice. Micromanagement, excessive control, as well as lacking personal and team development are only a few examples for motivation killers that are in conflict with our fundamental needs and often occur in practice. Working and studying in groups, more freedom with adjusting our work structure, and respect and appreciation in social interactions are a few easily implementable measures in order to increase motivation.
Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation: small difference, big effect.
On one hand, motivation can originate in ourselves, i.e. we do something due to personal interest or for our own purpose. This case is referred to as intrinsic motivation (Ryan, Deci 2000). On the other hand, external factors such as rewards, targets etc. are motivating us from outside. This second case is referred to as extrinsic motivation. According to the classic principal of profit maximization, rewards (i.e. bonus payment) with the purpose of increasing the extrinsic motivation have a similar effect as intrinsic motivation. In short: external incentives increase your own interest.
However, more recent psychological insights question this correlation. A study by Weibel et al. (2010) concluded that this additional motivation increase only occurs for simple activities that are conducted with low self-motivation. Particularly in the case of activities that are interesting and challenging at the same time external incentives even lead to a lower self-motivation. The explanation for this so-called “crowding out effect” is simple: External incentives remove the autonomy to make our own decisions and to manage ourselves. Two recommended actions to increase motivation can be deduces from this: Fun activities that we enjoy to do don’t require any external incentives and can even be less attractive with external incentives. However, motivation for activities that we only carry out reluctantly and without our own interest can certainly be increased by external incentives.
Individual goals. A universal motivation booster – or not?
A large number of scientific studies verify that individual goals lead to a significant increase in motivation in certain circumstances (Lock, Latham 1990). This has led many companies to set personal goals regularly and also in the private environment goals plays a more and more important role to increase motivation. The important factors here are that the set goals need to be specific and challenging and that the process of reaching these goals is supported by regular feedback. We have already discussed in our last blog that it is quite possible for set individual goals to induce side effects. Team or group goals are an alternative that has become more and more relevant during the last years (Locke, Latham 2006).
On one hand, these team and group goals have the potential to avoid harmful side effects of individual goals. On the other hand, a recently conducted investigation by Kleingeld et al. (2011) confirms positive effects on team performance by setting group goals. In particular when dealing with complex task assignments that require working together in a team, group goals should be the first choice. This is one of the main reasons Daimler’s recently presented leadership culture 2020 focuses on teams and group goals..
Social context and working environment makes the difference regarding motivation.
Another important factor that influences our motivation is work structuring. Here, one differentiates between two fundamental core areas: Relationship design and work design (Grant, Parker 2009). Relationship design is for example concerned with knowing about our actions’ contribution to society and for others. Grant was able to prove in his study (2008) that lifeguard performance is significantly increased if these lifeguards are informed about other lifeguards’ successful rescue operations.
It may be deduced from these results that our knowledge and awareness of our contribution to the big picture motivates us. These insights are reflected in current discussions about the topic of engagement and employee involvement. Work design, the second core area, concerns the possibility and the freedom to shape one’s own working environment. It’s about the understanding of one’s role, the resources and tools required for this purpose, as well as the temporal and content-related structure of tasks related with the occupation. Thus the circle is closing and we are back at the fundamental need autonomy, which we have already introduced.
In this article we have presented several current and scientifically substantiated approaches to boost motivation. Of course, if and how these approaches actually work always depends on factors such as the condition of the day, personality, and the general environment. Furthermore, these mechanisms are intertwined and connected as we have shown with the example of work design and autonomy. What is your experience with motivation?
References and further reading
Grant, Adam M. (2008): The significance of task significance: Job performance effects, relational mechanisms, and boundary conditions. In The Journal of applied psychology 93 (1), pp. 108–124. DOI: 10.1037/0021-9010.93.1.108.
Grant, Adam M.; Parker, Sharon K. (2009): 7 Redesigning Work Design Theories. The Rise of Relational and Proactive Perspectives. In The Academy of Management Annals 3 (1), pp. 317–375. DOI: 10.1080/19416520903047327.
Iaffaldano, Michelle T.; Muchinsky, Paul M. (1985): Job satisfaction and job performance. A meta-analysis. In Psychological Bulletin 97 (2), pp. 251–273. DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.97.2.251.
Kleingeld, Ad; van Mierlo, Heleen; Arends, Lidia (2011): The effect of goal setting on group performance: a meta-analysis. In The Journal of applied psychology 96 (6), pp. 1289–1304. DOI: 10.1037/a0024315.
Locke, E. A.; Latham, G. P. (1990): A Theory of Goal Setting & Task Performance: Prentice Hall.
Locke, Edwin A.; Latham, Gary P. (2006): New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory. In Current Directions in Psychol Sci 15 (5), pp. 265–268. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00449.x.
Ryan; Deci (2000): Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. In Contemporary educational psychology 25 (1), pp. 54–67. DOI: 10.1006/ceps.1999.1020 Sheldon, Kennon M.; Gunz, Alexander (2009): Psychological needs as basic motives, not just experiential requirements. In Journal of personality 77 (5), pp. 1467–1492. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00589.x.
Weibel, A.; Rost, K.; Osterloh, M. (2010): Pay for Performance in the Public Sector--Benefits and (Hidden) Costs. In Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 20 (2), pp. 387–412. DOI: 10.1093/jopart/mup009.
Markus is one of the founders of CQ and leads trainings in the area of Management and Mechanical Engineering. He holds a Master and Doctoral Degree in Economics and Computer Science from the Technical University of Vienna and a MSc in Organisational Behaviour from Birkbeck College, University of London. Being a dedicated "Knowledge Worker", Markus has continued his career with various private sector assignments in the management consulting, automotive and mechanical engineering industry.