The Nature of Motivation

As performance coaches, one of the fundamental questions that we sometimes get asked concerns the Nature of Motivation. At the risk of coining a catchphrase, There are two kinds of motivation in the world, toward and away from. More precisely, there are two motivational directions, and each has different properties and different results.

Nature of Motivation (Direction)
Motivation Direction is easily summarized as toward pleasure and away from pain. As living beings, we naturally avoid pain and discomfort unless there is a higher imperative at work. Similarly, if there are no competing environmental influences, then we will move towards comfort, pleasure, and reward. So how does that knowledge influence motivation and ultimately performance?

In NLP the choice of toward or away from depends on the employee, and their internal meta-programs. In management coaching, it is important to understand the relationship between the duration of the motivating stimulus, and the duration of the effect. In simple terms, which is more effective, the carrot compared to the stick? Which one produces the longer lasting effect?

Away Motivation
Away motivation can prompt an immediate reaction, such as the involuntary movement of ones hand away from a hot stove. However, once away from the direct stimulus, the effect is short lived. Once your hand leaves the vicinity of the heat source, there is no tendency to rush away to the gym and exercise for an hour, or paint the spare bedroom!

This can lead to cyclic behavior like so-called yo-yo dieting. We are overweight so we go on a diet. We lose some weight, so the motivation is reduced. We lose a bit more weight and are now cured, so we go off the diet. Our old comfort eating eating habits return and we put the weight back on again. Back comes the motivation to lose weight, and we are off round the circuit again!

Toward Motivation
Toward motivation on the other hand, may prompt only a slow reaction, but the effects can be much longer lasting. When a goal is clearly in mind, such as a the achievement of completing our first marathon, the incentive to start may be small. For some this may be too small to overcome our own internal inertia, sometimes known as procrastination. However, if the motivation is real, and we keep the vision in mind, then we can start training, at first a couple of miles a week, and build it up slowly. It may be raining, or we have had to work late, but the goal of completing the marathon will keep us on track.

Effective Motivation
There is an long running management debate about whether employees are best motivated by bonuses and rewards (theory Y) or by threats of punishment (theory X). Supporters of both theories can show that their cause has merit. Threats of punishment will often give a short lived result, such as a boost in performance, but may only work while the manager (for which read stimulus) is present, to reenforce the threats. Long term rewards can work if the workforce is moving in the right direction, but are useless if there is apathy or procrastination. But which motivation is the most effective?

When Motivation Goes Wrong
Setting performance targets is sometimes seen as a balance between carrot and stick, with the implicit or explicit threat of withholding a cash grant or bonus for poor performance. However, once people lose the belief that they might get the bonus, for whatever the reason, the motivation can quickly evaporate. This is because cash is often motivation away from poverty, or hunger, rather than the pure accumulation of wealth. It lacks a long term beneficial goal or strategic vision.

Worse still, targets can sometimes lead to undesirable result contrary to the interests of the target setters. Government frequently fall into this trap, but so to can businesses and financial institutions, encouraging staff to make decisions targeting short term personal gains at the expense of long term profitability. For examples of when motivation goes wrong, we need look no further than the crisis in the financial sector and the problem of sub-prime loans.

Motivation Objectives
Most management text will make reference to setting SMART objectives which means that the objective is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. However there is less guidance about the nature of the motivation behind the objectives. So how do we set objectives and motivate people to achieve them?

Take the example of Health and Safety. Every good manager knows that they have a responsibility for Health and Safety. Every manager committed to improving the well-being and productivity of their workforce would encourage their workers to read the organizational Health and Safety policy and all risk assessments which relate to their job. We can even set a SMART objective about reading all the relevant documents by a given time, and providing evidence back to management. But how do you motivate the workforce so that they want to do it?

Motivational Vision
There have been many great leaders who have made motivational speeches which have become milestones in history. A few examples are listed here, but there are many more, with the same thing in common:

  • “We shall fight them on the beaches” by Winston Churchill
  • “We choose to go to the Moon” by John F. Kennedy
  • “I have a dream” by Martin Luther King, Jr

They all provide a stirring vision which galvanized their audience into action, and in one way or another, changed the course of history.

It is often said that other people do not much care about what we want or need. Harsh, but sometimes true. However, if you inspire them with your vision, then it will become their vision too, and they will move in the direction of that goal; the result of toward motivation. All we need is a little away from motivation to overcome procrastination, and we are moving! It does not necessarily need the proverbial kick in the pants from us as a manager; any environmental stimulus will do. That takes us off in the direction of utilization, and the work of Milton Erickson, which is a subject for another day!

It Could Never Happen Could It?

Once upon a time in a mythical, mystical land, there was an organization that protected the public and did good works to enable people to recover when they lost their way, or fell on hard times, and so become productive members of society. They did their, often thankless, task on the stipend granted by the rulers of the land, largely for the benefit that it brought to society. Nobody in the organization grew rich, but society was a better place.

Because of local and geographical differences, the organization had grown up into local guilds with a strong association with the community. Some guild branches were large, in the cities, and some were very small in rural communities. But regardless of size, they all shared a common aim – to make society a better place.

However, the counters of beans in the royal counting house were bored, and needed something new to focus on. They looked about, and asked if this was the most efficient structure for the benevolent organization. The rulers of the land sought to improve things, consulted their trusted advisers, and decreed that some of the guilds should combine together into larger organizations, in order to make economies of scale.

The affected guilds protested and pointed out that the original arrangements had grown up as a result of local or geographical needs, and would be less efficient. But the will of the rulers was strong, and the amalgamations took place. Cost did indeed rise, but the guilds received no more monies from the counting house, in fact the stipend was reduced. As a result the guilds had to lay off some of the workers, and complete the good works with fewer people, and performance fell.

After much debate, the royal counting house identified that the problem with the amalgamations was that all of the guilds used different signaling and messaging systems, and some of these were incompatible with each other. Of course the different systems had grown up to meet the needs of the original guilds in delivering their good works to the local communities, so suited the way each guild had worked. The advisers to the rulers pointed out that a single system would be much more efficient and so save on the cost of people the guilds needed to deliver the good works.

The guilds protested when they learned of the cost of the new system, however, the rulers knew better, and caused all of the signaling and messaging systems on which the guilds relied to be given to a faceless corporation. Of course the faceless corporation had lawyers and accountants and directors and shareholders, all of whom required payment for their services, so inevitably the costs to the guilds rose. Once again the stipend was reduced by the counters of beans, and sadly the guilds had to lay off more workers, and performance again fell.

The rulers of the land were perplexed by the outcome and sought to identify the reason why the costs had risen, despite the words of the advisers. They concluded that the problem lay with the management of the individual guilds, and so determined that they needed a master guild to oversee them all and show them the way forward. The new master guild employed the very finest analysts and strategist to work on the efficiency problem, and reduce the cost of delivering the good works. They labored together in a magnificent palace near to the rulers of the land so that the rulers could see for themselves the work that was happening.

The analysts and strategist sent out books of rules to which every guild must adhere, and demanded that carrier pigeons be dispatched every month with details of how the guilds were implementing the new strategies. Unfortunately all this regulation increased the cost to the guilds delivering the good works, and the guilds protested, but to no avail.

Since the analysts and strategist in their magnificent palace cost a lot to maintain, the counters of beans in the royal counting house were appalled at the escalating bill for delivering the good works, and lamented the fall in performance. They demanded that something be done to rectify the situation immediately, and proposed that groups of guilds be formed together, based on regional and geographical location. Each guild region would have an overseer who would commission the good works, and withhold payment from any guild that fell short of performance targets. Once again the guilds protested that it was becoming impossible to deliver the good works with all the rules and layers of bureaucracy, but the rulers of the land acted on the words of the advisers of the counters of beans, and appointed the overseers.

In order to ensure that they understood all of the challenges faced by the guilds in doing the good works, the overseers requested that their guilds dispatched carrier pigeons to the regional palace every week. The overseers each kept a staff of administrators and under-managers to process the returns, and ensure that no guild unfairly had their stipend withheld. However the regional palaces, overseers, administrators and under-managers all increased the cost to the royal counting house.

As the information demands of the master guild had not reduced since the implementation of the overseer, soon the guilds were swamped with carrier pigeons for each of the different bodies. Each guild had to divert essential resources from delivering good works into maintaining and dispatching the pigeons, and each had a sizable loft and systems for ensuring efficient dispatch of the messages. Unfortunately the overheads of feeding and housing all the pigeons was costing the guilds dearly, and to make matters worse, performance was still falling.

More and more initiatives were proposed and implemented by the rulers, all without success.

  • The maintenance and cleaning of the pigeon lofts across the land was granted to another faceless corporation, but performance fell and costs increased.
  • Standards were documented by the scribes and applied to every guild across the land, but still costs increased.
  • A proposal was circulated that all the pigeon lofts were to be amalgamated into a single super loft, implemented by one of the faceless corporations, even though the guilds protested that pigeon technology was outdated. The proposal went ahead, but the idea fell down as each guild still needed it’s own loft, and of course costs spiraled.

The counters of beans were in despair, and the rulers of the land squirmed uncomfortably. Something had to change!

At last, the rulers of the land ordered an investigation into the situation, and demanded a solution to the problem of the rising cost of performing the good works. The sun rose and set many times while the seers and advisers proposed and counter-proposed, argued and debated. The only thing that hadn’t been changed was the guilds themselves. They must be the cause of the problem, but how could the good works be delivered without the guilds? The only solution would be to outsource all the good works to one of the many faceless corporations which showed such expertise in delivering magnificent contracts!

Just then, one of the advisers pointed out that the faceless corporations were there to make a profit, so no-one would bid for the contract because of all the bureaucracy, standards, constraints, rules and regulations. On this there was general agreement, so the rulers of the land made a series of proclamations

  • They disbanded the regional overseers
  • They relaxed the rules which prevented the people delivering the good works from using their judgement
  • They removed the requirement for the faceless corporation to dispatch all the pigeons
  • They removed any regulation or standard which would increase the cost for the faceless organization, and so dissuade them from taking the contract
  • They wrapped the contract in all sorts of sweeteners and incentives,

Most importantly, they made it difficult for the guilds to operate on a commercial basis by insisting that they continue to use the obsolete messaging system, dependent on the pigeon lofts.

The night that the magnificent contract was awarded to the faceless corporation, the counting house resounded to joyous singing. The rulers of the land were relieved that they had divested themselves of the problem of delivering the good works to the diverse people in the cities, towns and hamlets. They grasped and shook the hands of the lawyers and and advisers, who had worked so hard to make it all possible. Merriment was unrestrained, until at last everyone retired to sleep, happy and exhausted.

The next morning, all the representatives of the the faceless corporations, who had been acting as advisers to the rulers of the land, slipped silently back to their employers, their work complete. Let the carnage begin.

This is just a metaphor, a story. There are no people, genders, institutions or organizations identified here. Any conclusions you may draw are your own. It is not real, and it could not happen.

Or could it?

Celebrate As You Scrape The Frost Off The Car

While you are busy scraping the ice off the car and wishing you could remember where you left your other glove, spare a thought for those less fortunate than you, and consider how lucky you are.

Because you are out in the early morning, it means you have a car, or a friend with a car who is going to give you a lift. Some people do not have that human warmth, or that material possession, so celebrate what you have.

Because you are out doing that job, at that moment, it means you have somewhere that it is important to go. Be it to work, or the shops, on the school run, or to visit friends or relatives, you have somewhere that it is important to be. Some people do not have anywhere at all to go, and may feel that they have lost purpose. Celebrate that you have somewhere important to go, and a reason to make the journey.

Because you can scrape off the ice, even with one hand in your pocket, it means that you have a degree of manual dexterity and mobility. Some people lack one, or the other, and would love to have the ability to scrape ice off your car. So celebrate what you can do, and use those abilities to help others if you can.

Suddenly, temporary cold fingers while you scrape the frost off the car windscreen seems like something to celebrate, now doesn’t it?

Who can you help today?

Scurvy Elephants and Childhood Misconceptions

I am a great fan of Dr Wayne Dyer, the respected American self-help advocate, author, and lecturer, and once had the great privilege to listen to him speak at a luau next to his home in Maui, Hawaii. He is a master of recounting anecdotes from his family life, and uses his own experiences as a example. One of my favorite anecdotes from Wayne Dyer concerns his revelations about scurvy elephants, and goes something like this:

Wayne Dyer came home from school one day and asked his mum, “What’s a scurvy elephant?”. She told him she’d never heard of one and asked where he’d heard it. “From my teacher; he said I was a scurvy elephant.” Bewildered, his mother called the teacher and asked what he had meant. The teacher responded, “As usual Wayne got it wrong. I didn’t say he was a scurvy elephant; I said he was a disturbing element!”

I love this story because it reminds me of my childhood and the mistakes I used to make. How many times did I mishear something and jumped to a wrong conclusion. Sometimes I have constructed whole alternative explanations for things and incorporated them into my reality, only to learn much later that I have got it wrong, and the misconception has collapsed. It is part of growing up and reevaluating what is happening around you. You learn from your mistakes and grow as a person. However, I wonder how many other things I have misheard or misunderstood and built into a false reality, but not yet learned the error of my ways.

It also resonates with me as I have been called a Scurvy Elephant (and worse) many times because I haven’t always fitted in to other people’s model of the world. Who is to say who’s view is right and who’s is wrong? Sometimes you just have to have your own opinion and do what you know is right. Wayne Dyer is proud to be a Scurvy Elephant and I am pleased to join him.

If you are not yet sure if you are a Scurvy Elephant and want to find out more, why not click here to visit Dr Wayne Dyer’s website

Draw Inspiration from Anything and Everything

I had cause to travel to London today, on the first day of the tube strike, along with millions of other who have found their travel plans disrupted. It is not my way to comment on the strike itself, as I respect everyone’s model of the world even if it might affect my plans. I have no control over the London underground, but I do have control over, and accept full responsibility for my reaction to it and my state of mind.

As circumstances would require a trip across the city, an alternative form of transport was required. You could be forgiven for taking on a mood of doom and gloom at the thought of unending queues for the remaining public transport, or even canceling the journey. Instead I found the trip encouraging and inspiring.

Of course the train was late in to Paddington, but people just went about their journey with that steely expression which reveals deep determination if you chose to look for it. Of course the queue for the taxi rank reached almost to the end of the platform, in the direction of Reading (for US readers, that is pronounced “Red – ing”!), but it was thoughtfully inside, out of the rain. I found that uplifting and was able to bath in an attitude of gratitude.

Sure, it took thirty minutes in the queue to get to the front, where you were given a coloured card indicating the area of London you were headed. But it gave you a chance to talk to people around you who you would otherwise never have spoken to or even met. More opportunity for celebration!

It took a few more minutes while you were organised by the marshals into taxi sized groups with the same coloured card, each bearing the identity of the Paddington Station Taxi share scheme and the fixed fare price. There was a feeling of excitement as your group waited for its turn, with everyone listening eagerly to the marshals for their instructions. We looked back along the rank of taxi cabs wondering would we get a black one or one of the odd white ones?

Even the trip across London squashed into the cab was interesting, with everyone in the group chatting, or at least contributing to the banter. When I got out of the taxi at my destination I was impressed to notice that I was still in time for my meeting. In fact I have just enough time to add another post on my blog.

It just goes to show that if you take responsibility for your own personal state, you can draw inspiration from anything and everything, and that way lies personal power.

Have a wonderful day!