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!