Motivation as a skill

Want to motivate others? Start by learning how to motivate yourself. That’s the message that best-selling author Susan Fowler has for the supervisors, managers, and senior leaders she works with. In Fowler’s experience, you have to understand your own reasons for performing at a high level before you can help others do the same. Without that understanding, most managers attempting to “motivate” others will resort to imposed or extrinsic techniques that may only make the matter worse.

This is the situation that many managers and organizations have found themselves in. A slow economy has left everyone with a motivation hangover now that the punchbowl of more money, more rewards, and more things has been removed. The economics of the current environment have limited those resources. So people are now saying, “What do we do?”

It’s a question that Fowler has been preparing to answer since she first began studying motivation in the early ’90s. Surprisingly, while this research has been around for decades, it is only now beginning to seep into business thinking.

As she explains, “I remember watching education expert Alfie Kohn on Oprah Winfrey back in the 1990s. He was talking about how schools and parents resorted to rewards to motivate kids. Ironically, and tragically, these practices ultimately have the opposite effect of diminishing their basic intrinsic motivation to learn.”

Fowler maintains that the reason for our dependence on external rewards to motivate people, especially in the workplace, is not just because they were easy and the “fast food” of motivation, but because we didn’t have alternatives—we didn’t know what truly motivates people. This is why Fowler began studying the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, two researchers at the University of Rochester who pioneered Self-Determination Theory. Their findings created a firestorm of research challenging traditional notions of what truly motivates people.

“The latest science of motivation gives us an entire spectrum of options beyond the carrot and stick. People want or need money and rewards, but when they believe that is what motivates them, they are missing out on much more effective and satisfying motivational experiences.”

A new consciousness

This is where Fowler gets excited. We finally have answers to how people become actively engaged, or passionate, about their work. “Gallup's work on engagement has raised the consciousness so that organizations now realize that there is a real bottom-line impact to people being engaged. The big challenge has been, how do you engage people?”

That’s why Fowler co-developed an approach that includes a new program called Optimal Motivation. The program focuses on what individual employees, managers, and senior leaders can do on a day-to-day basis to enhance their work experience. This allows managers to create an environment where people don't have to self-regulate all the time because there is a renewed sense of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. The leaders can be doing things that are going to foster an environment where Optimal Motivation is more likely to occur.

Motivation as a skill

But Fowler doesn’t hold managers solely responsible for creating an engaging work environment.

As she explains, “I believe that motivation is a skill and what we are promoting is that individuals need to have that skill. Even if my manager isn't creating a motivating environment or my company hasn't figured out engagement or work passion, I still don't have any excuse to be miserable, with low energy or a negative sense of well-being. We can all develop the skill to do our work with energy, vitality, and a sense of positive well-being.

“In the past, if someone wasn't motivated to do their job, they would have more freedom to change—to go somewhere else and try something different. Today, people feel trapped in their jobs. They aren’t motivated in their present job, but they don’t have any other options. The economics and labor market have created a perfect ‘quit and stay’ storm.

“People are quitting and staying out of fear and desperation. This might not show up in turnover figures but it has negative impact elsewhere. Over time, people with suboptimal motivation in the workplace cost you in terms of physical and mental health, absenteeism, tardiness, and low productivity. Organizations that don't address this become less competitive through lowered productivity and other measures.”

People are the organization

Still, not every organization is ready to embrace this new way of thinking. Companies have been relying on external rewards for a very long time. But even in these organizations, “Somewhere deep down inside, people know that there's a truth that needs to be explored,” explains Fowler.

“We are looking for these types of organizations. They recognize that this is the right thing to do and that, yes, the organization will benefit over time as a result. Why wouldn't you want an organization where people have a positive sense of well-being?”

The good news is that taking care of people and taking care of the organization are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are intricately intertwined. As Fowler shares, “Organizations that keep a mantra of results and productivity at the expense of their people are ironically not going to get the results and productivity that they want.

“You have to understand the underlying energy that people need to bring to get those results. People are not the assets of the organization—people are the organization. What we do to employees is what we do to our companies. This is the human side of business.”


Would you like to learn more about creating an environment high in employee work passion?

A Closer Look at the New Science of Motivation

Recorded on Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The new science of motivation has identified exciting and effective alternatives to the traditional ways that people have been motivated in the workplace.

In this webinar, best-selling author and motivation expert Susan Fowler will show you how to open your mind to a different way of motivating yourself as an individual.

You’ll learn:

  1. How to choose a higher quality of motivational experience
  2. How motivation is a skill that can be taught, learned, nurtured, and sustained
  3. The three ways you can apply motivation skills—at an individual level, as a leader, or from an organizational perspective

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn how to shift from a quantity of motivation to a quality of motivation experience. Motivation is a skill that any individual can learn and that managers can use to foster a more optimally motivating environment.

View On-demand