The ABCs of motivation

I’ve been reading a lot lately about motivation, and I’ve come to believe that it isn’t like a liquid that you can pour into someone. People don’t have different “levels” of motivation. But there are different kinds of motivation, and some are more effective than others for producing long-term outcomes.

When we threaten punishment and/or offer a reward for compliance, we are supplying an extrinsic motivator. I’ve heard this referred to as “activation”, and I like this term because that’s exactly what the effect is. If you hold a gun to my head, threatening my well being unless I hand over my wallet, you’ll get my wallet, no questions asked. Offer me ten thousand dollars to lose 10 pounds? You can bet I’d accomplish that goal. But what would be the long-term outcome? Would I keep the weight off? The research says no – threats and bribes are very effective at getting one thing: temporary compliance.

Traditional parenting and schooling uses a lot of extrinsic motivators. Most of us punished our kids in some way when they didn’t comply with our wishes. “Natural consequences” are not exempt from the label of punishment, either. Even more of us offered rewards to our kids in an effort to motivate them. Sometimes this is done enough that kids start to internalize these things, which leads to a condition that Alfie Kohn has dubbed, “internal motivation”. The kids know that we have certain expectations, and they will eventually start to follow them to avoid the punishments and capture our attention and love (because that is the ultimate reward, when we show love to our kids conditionally).

One big problem with both extrinsic and internal motivation is that it’s focused on the wrong thing. We’re entirely focused on behaviors – we want our kids to behave in a certain fashion. Be quiet in the movie theater. Sit still in class. Take out the trash. The more we focus on controlling behavior through coercive means, the more we’re sending a lesson of power – powerful people control those weaker than them through coercion. Another problem is that we tend to make people just a little more self-centered each time we use coercive techniques to gain compliance, and this includes verbal rewards such as, “Good job sharing!” This says to the child, “if you want my love and approval, you’ll share with your friends,” and over time, the child starts thinking about how his sharing will impact himself, instead of sharing simply because it would make others happy. What will I get if I do this? Or what will happen to me if I don’t? The culture in the USA today is very self-centered, and I believe this is a big contributor to that problem.

The third type of motivation is intrinsic. If you’ve ever found yourself doing something just because it seems like the right thing to do, that’s intrinsic motivation. If you’ve ever looked up at the clock and seen that a few hours have flown by while you were doing something that you really enjoy, that’s intrinsic motivation. While behaviors coerced via extrinsic means tend to disappear once those extrinsic motivators are gone, you’ll continue to do things that you’re intrinsically motivated to do. Intrinsic motivation leads to long-term outcomes.

There are three pillars of intrinsic motivation, and they are as easy to remember as your ABC’s: autonomy, belonging, and competence. If I feel competent at something (even just a little), I’m more likely to participate. If I am in an environment where I feel connected to the others around me, and unconditionally supported by them, I’ll feel safer taking risks to try something a little bit out of my comfort zone. And if you’ll give me the choice instead of coercing me into doing it, I’ll have the space to discover for myself whether this new thing is worth doing.

I used to nag my boy to take out the trash. Originally the idea for having him do this chore was to learn responsibility, caring for the family, and remembering regular tasks of daily life. However, the more he forgot to do his chore, the less I thought about my long-term aims for him and instead I found myself getting angry that he wasn’t doing what he was asked. Over the years I found that punishments and rewards didn’t change anything in the long run, and as I started learning about human motivation, I was challenged to remember my original aims for the task. So I had a talk with my son. We talked about why taking out the trash is important, hearkening back to the days before sanitation was deemed important. He started seeing that what he was doing was actually a very critical function for the family. Eventually I stopped nagging him altogether, and now I feel like I have his back – when he forgets, I am happy to help pick up the slack. He rarely forgets. And why should I hold him to a higher standard than I would myself or any other adult? We all forget stuff sometimes. It’s natural. Even though he now knows that I’ll do it for him if he forgets, and that I don’t nag him, threaten him, or bribe him, he’s even more determined to do it and he almost always remembers. We’re both quite a bit happier with the new arrangement, and our relationship is stronger.

There’s no question that bribes and threats are often easier to employ in the moment, especially with children (because an adult is so much more powerful than a child). But if you’re interested in raising moral children who care about others, it’s worth studying ways of “working with” them instead of the more traditional, “doing to” methods of punishments and rewards. Check out Unconditional Parenting for a guide. But don’t think that this only applies to little ones! Much of the wisdom in this book applies to working with adults as well. If you’re a manager, create an ABC style environment for your team and start working with them. It’ll probably take awhile to garner their trust if you’ve used coercive techniques in the past, but once that trust starts to build, you’ll be amazed at the results you’ll see.

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