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.

Competition in games and work

In the west, we are raised from a very early age to be competitive. We are graded and stack ranked in the classroom, either by teachers or by standardized “normed” tests. We are taught by adults to play games where only one person (or team) wins, and the others must lose. By the time we are adults, we’ve learned to take joy in defeating others.

The popular sports we see on TV are competitive. Football, baseball, tennis, golf, these are all set up so that success is artificially scarce. Competition surrounds us. And yet, not all sports are competitive. One reason skateboarding is so popular is because it is a cooperative sport: when you’re at the skatepark, everyone is rooting for you to succeed! Sure there are the big televised competitions, but that’s not the spirit of the sport, as you’ll find if you ask anyone who actually does it (including Tony Hawk).

Many people have become so used to seeing competition that they feel as though it is necessary in order to achieve greatness. But that’s crazy if you think about it. Consider how many goals would be scored if hockey teams decided to cooperate in a game instead of compete!

Competition in games is an artificial pitting of one person (or team) against another. A healthy way to look at it is that your opposition offers a resistance for you to push against. Arm wrestling is an obvious example of this, but chess is another example, where you and your opponent explore the game together. Few great chess players would be truly happy after investing an hour in a game only to have their opponent make a truly sloppy move that allows an easy win. Much of the joy of chess is in the exploration of the strategy and tactics. Your opponent cooperates in your study of the game when she plays the best move she can find!

Many people don’t ever discover this healthy viewpoint and victory becomes the end goal. They aren’t happy unless they are triumphing over someone else.

In the west, it’s common to find competition in the workplace. Sales people compete for incentive pay and often prizes. People compete to climb the corporate ladder. Employees compete for “employee of the month” awards. All of this leads me to ask the question, why do we need to introduce artificial opposition, or resistance, in the workplace? Aren’t there already enough hurdles in the way of a business being successful? Why add more?

At a recent conference emphasizing cooperation over competition, I overheard a salesman complain to his colleagues when challenged to consider a salary as opposed to a commission, “what, are we just supposed to stop keeping score?” Winning can easily become an obsession, especially for people with low self-worth.

When you’re not focused on victory over other people, you can use all of your energy to lean in to whatever project you’re working on. Winning is an end – when you’re not focused on winning you tend to enjoy the journey more, and thus live a happier life. Excellence is orthogonal to competition – it can exist with or without it.

For further reading: No Contest, by Alfie Kohn

Knowledge is power

Knowledge is power. When you share knowledge with someone, you’re sharing power. If instead, you choose to hoard knowledge, that’s a way to accumulate power for yourself. Indeed the earliest reference to this phrase that I found was from the Arabic,

Knowledge is power and it can command obedience. A man of knowledge during his lifetime can make people obey and follow him and he is praised and venerated after his death. Remember that knowledge is a ruler and wealth is its subject.

— Imam Ali, Nahj Al-Balagha, Saying 146

Micromanagers like to hoard knowledge. How often have you been given a list of things to do with no idea of why any of them need to be done? A micromanager will often give very detailed methods and you will be expected never to deviate from those methods, even if you spot an obvious improvement. It’s tough to know how to improve under a micromanager, because if you don’t know the aim, you won’t know what change in outcome would constitute an improvement.

This is one of the primary ways that a management hierarchy can become dysfunctional. At some point the aim becomes to maintain power and authority (by maintaining position and title). This type of selfishness contributes to the destruction of the system. Hierarchies that operate this way promote a culture of fear, which is the antithesis of what is needed for learning.

The best and the brightest?

I hear a lot of talk about companies wanting to hire the best and the brightest (I’m going to abbreviate this as BaB for this article). But I wonder if that’s a great long-term strategy? Is there something better?

When building a business, we’re often so focused on the parts that make up the system of our business that we forget that our business is itself a part of a bigger system. Is it selfish for a business to hire only BaBs? Would it be better for that business, in the long haul, to hire average people and help them become great? Would that be a short term sacrifice that would benefit the bigger system and thus ultimately the business itself?

It’s interesting that there’s a book designed to teach managers how to keep the BaBs that they hired. That’s a fear isn’t it, with hiring a BaB – the fear of their mobility. Compare the loyalty of the BaB you just hired from another company versus someone who your company helped develop into a BaB.

Hiring BaBs isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, anyway. In 2004, the Harvard Business Review published an article titled, The Risky Business of Hiring Rock Stars. It’s worth reading.

“For all the hype that surrounds stars, human resources experts have rarely studied their performance over time. Six years ago, we started tracking high-flying CEOs, researchers, and software developers, as well as leading professionals in investment banking, advertising, public relations, management consulting, and the law. We observed that top performers in all those groups were more like comets than stars. They were blazing successes for a while but quickly faded out when they left one company for another.”

Why might this be? One of the key reasons cited has to do with systems. The performance of any individual is a combination of her own individual performance plus her interaction with the system in which she works. The equation looks like this, where P is performance, I is the individual’s contribution, and SI is the contribution due to the individual’s interaction within the system: P = I + SI

Even if you knew P, you’ve still got a single equation with two variables. And the SI term is constantly changing over time, so it’s ultimately impossible to measure. When you remove the BaB from their system and bring them into yours, you’ve really no idea what P will become.

A business that takes the long term view need not be in a rush to hire BaBs. Because it believes in strengthening the system in which it is a part, a business with long term vision will develop its employees. It will help its employees continue their education (and here I don’t necessarily mean a traditional college education). It will constantly bring in new knowledge from the outside and share that knowledge with any employee interested in learning.

When I look back on my life, the happiest, most energetic and productive times were when I was in a development spurt. I was eager to challenge myself, venturing outside my comfort zone little by little, and getting better every day. And it’s not just my experience. Listen to Liz Wiseman talk about the power of rookies. But people won’t take themselves out of their comfort zone, learn, and develop, unless they feel safe.

Many business environments are not suitable for inspiring learning. We only learn by making mistakes, and when mistakes are not tolerated, or there’s an environment of fear, or short term thinking, forget it – you’re not going to have much luck growing BaBs from within.

If, however, you build an environment free from these things, safe and conducive to exploration and learning, this is a very sustainable model. This leads me to one last great reason to build your own BaBs instead of hiring them from the outside: those BaBs know how important it is to preserve the environment in which they flourished. A rock star from the outside won’t have this important understanding, and what’s worse, they may bring along baggage from their previous company which tends to threaten that safe environment you’ve worked so hard to build.

What is a system?

Dictionary definition: “a collection of parts that make up a whole”.

Deming took this one step further by postulating that every system must have an aim.

Many systems evolve without their “designers” consciously thinking about an aim, but you can often reverse-engineer the aim of a system by studying its makeup and the outcomes it’s producing.

In nature we see many examples of systems, and the aim there seems to be sustainability. Nature tends to balance itself so that only the necessary parts in the system remain, and unnecessary parts die out.

Wetlands are a great example of a sustainable system. Fish eat plants and produce ammonia as waste. If this ammonia were allowed to build up, it would eventually become toxic. Certain types of bacteria treat this ammonia as “food” and convert it into nitrites and ultimately into nitrates, which is “food” for plants. The plants remove the nitrates from the water, effectively cleaning it so the fish can thrive. All of the parts work together to contribute to the aim of the system, and the aim is sustainability – that all of the parts may thrive. Fish, bacteria, and plants, ultimately live together in harmony.

Humans create systems all the time. A business is a system. A school is a system. A home is a system. How well any of these systems function, how effective and efficient they are, often comes down to how well the parts cooperate to support the aim.

Complex systems are fractal in nature. Take a school, for example. If the aim of the school is to serve the students so they develop into mature, contributing adults in a democratic society, then every part of the school must contribute in some way to that aim. For example, a necessary part of a school is facility maintenance, which creates a physical environment conducive to achieving the aim of the school.

One part of a system can become selfish, no longer concerned with the aim of the overall system. Think about what would happen if the fish in a wetland were to multiply so much that it was out of balance. The entire system could be destroyed this way. Nature takes care of this by eliminating the excess fish – they starve if there’s not enough food, and the system restores its balance.

What about human-engineered systems such as schools, business, and government? It’s remarkable how these systems survive as long as they do given the amount of selfishness present in the parts. Take departmental goal setting as an example in business. Each department is out for itself, trying to be number one by hitting its goals, versus thinking about what’s right for the overall system of which it is a part.

When a part of a system becomes selfish, it weakens the overall system, which ultimately harms all of the parts. When a part of a system makes a sacrifice that helps the overall system, all of the parts of the system are rewarded because the whole system thrives.


Goal vs. aim

I hear people talk about goals all the time. Much more rare is to hear about aims. A goal has an end state, while an aim does not.

“Reduce accidents by 25%.” That’s a goal.

“Reduce accidents.” That’s an aim. It gives us direction (we want less accidents), but there’s no numerical target.

As of this writing, I see numerical targets everywhere I look. Goal setting has become an unquestioned strategy for improvement. But there are some real dark sides to goal setting, and one big one is short-term thinking. An aim tends to foster longer term thinking and sustainability.

Once I learned the difference, things started becoming visible to me that were previously hidden. I started tuning my own language to use the proper word (aim or goal) depending on the context. And I find myself using the word “goal” less and less all the time.

Culture of competition

During a recent Deming seminar, after listening to the speaker talk about the drawbacks of paying salespeople on commission, one fellow in the audience clearly couldn’t take it anymore. He spoke up, “I’m a sales guy. What, you’re telling me that we’re just going to quit keeping score?” This speaks to our culture in the US.

What creates our culture of competition?

  • Fascination with sports
  • Gold stars and grading in schools
  • Shame we have in our lives that leads to judging others in order to build ourselves up
  • What else?