There are no shortcuts to solving the motivation mystery

The secret to employee motivation
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Chris Shaw
Partner
Cultural Gravity
Columnist
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This article will tell you how to motivate any individual in any business using five quick and easy steps! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could really do that? If somehow, I was about to uncover a genuine hack for motivating people… or would it really be so wonderful? What would it mean for society if such a shortcut existed? How would you feel if someone had a guaranteed formula to motivate you?

So many of us search the internet for quick solutions to save time and avoid unnecessary trouble. It’s quickly become our first port of call. We look to the likes of Google in our increasingly time-poor existence and hope that someone somewhere has a ready-made answer for our specific problem, broken down into a simple series of steps we can follow.

Of course, this method is completely logical and can indeed save you time and trouble if you are looking to fix a leaky tap or understand how to fix a formula in Excel. On the other hand human behaviour is far more complex and, therefore, has no shortcut or one-size fits all solution.

We are all unique. This is a fact many choose to avoid or deny regularly with today’s abundance of information and impatience. We convince ourselves that we can find the easy answer; we just need to keep testing our search for that ever-elusive pigeonhole labelled ‘humanity’.    

Trying to solve the motivation mystery

Human motivation, or more specifically, sustainable human motivation, is an area we continue to explore in our attempt to solve our own mysteries. Daniel Pink, Barry Schwartz and Simon Sinek are among those leading the social media charge on the importance of purpose or what is increasingly referred to now as ‘why’.

We continue to see the battle between culture and strategy, and leaders and managers play out in the business world as more and more organisations apply greater focus on purpose in order to reach people. To motivate them to buy or to work for the long-term.  But is purpose really enough? How well do we understand our own why, let alone the ever-changing variations of why active in our places of work?

As Sinek suggests in his first book, we do indeed need to “start with why,” but not a well-crafted company why that’s been polished by a marketing agency just to lure people in. We need to start with our very own authentic why. If we don’t understand that, it becomes very easy to attach ourselves to something nice and shiny that’s ready-made for our convenience. That’s not to say ready-made answers cannot resonate in some way, but there is always a risk of them being one-dimensional, thus losing their appeal over time.

There are many schools of thought on how to discover one’s own why, but let’s start with what each of us hold dear. Shalom H. Schwartz agues there are ten basic human values which are universal. They are as follows:

  1. Self-Direction - our concepts of freedom, self-respect and curiosity
  2. Stimulation - our concepts of excitement, variety and daring
  3. Hedonism - our concepts of pleasure, enjoyment and indulgence
  4. Achievement - our concepts of success, ambition and influence
  5. Power - our concepts of authority, wealth and recognition
  6. Security - our concepts of social order, health and belonging
  7. Conformity - our concepts of self-discipline and interacting with the expectations of others
  8. Tradition - our concepts of respect, commitment and customs
  9. Benevolence - our concepts of helpfulness, forgiveness and loyalty
  10. Universalism - our concepts of social justice, environment and equality

When considering the number of interpretations each heading permits it’s difficult to find a human value which cannot be traced back to one of the ten Schwartz has identified.  But the devil is in the detail and it is both the nuances of interpretation, coupled with the fluid nature of the needs they create in us, which illustrates the problem with motivational hacks.

We each have our own unique mix of interpretations and needs based on our own unique life experiences - own unique why. Our experiences continue to shape us from cradle to grave, either reinforcing our beliefs or causing us to re-evaluate those beliefs which are either less-established or rarely challenged.

This very article will also contribute to that process, as you attach meaning to Schwartz’s list and identify with certain aspects of it (or not). That identification may then in turn influence what you then actively look for when you finish reading. Our values and our needs are fluid, and whilst we will have commonality, the regular flexing of their hierarchy means they can change from person to person and from day to day. This creates almost an infinite number of combinations at play on any given day which is impossible to cater to, right?

The long-term value of authenticity

This is why authentic company values, along with clarity of mission and vision play such an important role in motivation – they operate using the law of attraction and will at least help identify some shared core values.

But they are not enough in isolation, nor if the rest of your working environment is inhibiting other values or needs being fulfilled. For over 200 years we have operated on the principal of power (wealth in particular) being the trump card in motivation. It has become our default answer to everything, but when in certain situations is can be actively demotivating.

In their research entitled Effort for Payment, James Heyman and Dan Ariely make a compelling case for the danger of this default stance using a simple exercise of moving a sofa into a van. Participants were either asked to help as a favour or for a small fee. The very introduction of money switches the decision from a social transaction (is it the right thing to do?), to a financial transaction (is it worth my time and effort?).

You don’t need to read the research paper to know what the outcome of the experiment was. There are many more studies which aptly demonstrate the adverse effects money can have on motivating desired behaviour and sometimes it’s introduction can encourage the very behaviour we are trying to deter.

There are no quick and easy steps to motivating unique individuals, but if we are to sustainably motivate then we need to start by designing and creating environments which provide clear anchor points so people can productively satisfy whatever specific need is important to them at any given time.

How many outlets exist clearly in your business, and what purpose do they really serve? If all the outlets exist and are designed in a way to support your business goals, people will craft their own meaning to the work they do more effectively and not only will you get more out of them, they will get more out of you too.

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