Let’s face it: Change is hard — for organizations and individuals alike. We have learned a great deal about motivation and human behavior over the last 50 years, yet you wouldn’t know it by looking at how most organizations approach change.
Over the past three decades, a wealth of scientific research clearly demonstrates that intrinsic motivation is the best and, for most people, the only way to promote positive, sustainable change 1-6. This is another one of those situations where we find ourselves at a crossroads of Belief vs. Evidence. As is so often the case, the choice is between remaining stuck on our old paradigm beliefs regarding motivation and evolving to a better understanding by embracing the latest research; thereby helping us to better foster and support sustainable change. It’s time to embrace the evolution from Motivation 1.0 to Motivation 4.0.
• Motivation 1.0 – Knowledge Leads to Change. Not too long ago, the thought was if you simply educated people enough so they knew more, they would automatically change. However, most people know which behaviors are good for them and which are harmful, and most people still fail to make changes. How many people do you know who have made sustainable changes because they were nagged to death and told they should make changes? As Margaret Wheatley puts it:
“We never succeed in directing or telling people they must change. We don’t succeed by handing them a plan, or pestering them with our interpretations or relentlessly pressing forward with our agenda, believing that volume and intensity will convince them to see it our way. You can scream and holler as much as you want, but if people don’t regard what you’re saying as important they’ll just ignore you and go on with their life. (In this way all people behave like teenagers.)”7
• Motivation 2.0 – Incent People to Change. So, if knowledge is not enough to create behavior change, what are we to do? The answer for the past 60-plus years has been behavior modification: offering people rewards (carrots) and/or applying penalties (sticks) to get individuals to do what we want them to do. The research has taught us that incentives can produce short-term results in terms of compliance but incentives don’t lead to commitment. They fail to produce long-term, sustainable results. Even worse, incentives have been shown to decrease intrinsic motivation. 1-6 (See “To Incent or Not to Incent… What Really Works?”)
“If your objective is to get people to obey an order, show up on time and do what they are told, then bribing or threatening them may be sensible strategies. But if you objective is to get long term quality in the work place, to help students become more careful thinkers and self-directed learners, or to support children in developing good values, then rewards like punishments are absolutely useless.”3
• Motivation 3.0 – “Get” People to be Intrinsically Motivated. Common sense seems to prevail with many people recognizing the importance of intrinsic/autonomous motivation. Yet, how we go about eliciting it is fundamentally flawed — especially when it comes to worksite-wellness efforts. And even with acknowledgement that intrinsic/autonomous motivation is needed for sustainability, worksite wellness is still centered on using incentives with the flawed belief that incentives will garner participation and that people “magically” will become intrinsically motivated. However, the data doesn’t support this.
Our behavior nuances communicate our thoughts; therefore, change initiatives only work when we change the way we think.1 In other words, lasting change needs to come from within and be inside-out. People first must be clear about what matters to them, considering their WHOLE LIFE, and be able to tap into better thinking. Think about it: Most people you know who have made some sort of profound change started with some sort of “awakening” or new thinking about what truly matters to them. So, we need to think less about motivation and more about creating the conditions to support better thinking; only then can we create conditions for individual change. Because, at the end of the day, “successful organizations don’t motivate employees; they engage them.” Motivating employees and engaging them are very distinct concepts.6
• Motivation 4.0 – Support better THINKING. The research clearly demonstrates that engagement and sustainable change require supporting intrinsic or autonomous motivation. However, at the heart of intrinsic motivation are an individual’s values and thoughts. Therefore, fostering intrinsic motivation requires moving a little further upstream to understand and shift how we think. In the now famous words of Albert Einstein:
“The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.” ~Albert Einstein
Research over the past two decades has conclusively demonstrated the importance of fostering self-leadership within organizations where people are influencing themselves (as opposed to waiting to be told what to do) and emphasizing the intrinsic value of tasks (finding meaning and enjoyment in their work). At the heart of intrinsic motivation and self-leadership are an individual’s values and thoughts. The underlying premise is that people can use specific cognitive strategies to influence or control their own thoughts, ultimately impacting both individual and organizational performance.8 Managing this so-called “thought self-leadership” involves strategies that replace dysfunctional thought patterns with more constructive ones. In organizations, the challenge is to create an environment that fosters developing and maintaining such constructive thinking.9
In a previous blog, “Why Intrinsic THINKING Makes All the Difference”, I describe the work of Robert S. Hartman and the hierarchy of best thinking: I>E>S – Intrinsic (uniqueness of people) > Extrinsic (function and thing-like qualities) > Systemic (conceptualization and ideas of how things should be). When you think of what organizations do for employee engagement, and particularly for worksite wellness efforts, it makes sense why efforts fail. Our approach is backwards: It’s S>E>I. Leaders often over-value the function of employees (E) and focus on their behaviors. Yet employees are essentially screaming that they really want to feel valued as people. Similarly, traditional approaches to employee wellness identify a health standard (S) and then create actions and programs (E) that employees should do that should work (if they were predictable like machines or rodents). When these actions and programs don’t work, the carrot becomes the stick, and a vicious cycle ensues. Desired outcomes for individuals and organizations will continue to be limited as long as intrinsic thinking is weak.
It’s time to embrace Motivation 4.0. Step away from the carrots and sticks; recognize that you can’t “get” anyone to be intrinsically motivated; and instead create the conditions that support better thinking (I>E>S) and autonomy, mastery and purpose.
- Jacobs, C.S., “Management Rewired”
- Pink, D.H., “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”
- Kohn, A., “Punished by Rewards”
- Deci, E. L. & Flaste, R., “Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation”
- Amabile, T.M., “Motivating creativity in organizations: On doing what you love and loving what you do.” California Management Review, 40(1), 39-58.
- Marciano, P.L., Ph.D., “Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT™”
- Wheatley, M., “Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time”
- Neck, C. P. & Manz, C. C., “Thought Self-Leadership: The Influence of Self-Talk and Mental Imagery on Performance.” Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13(7), 681-699.
- Manz, C. C. & Neck, C. P., “Inner leadership: Creating Productive Thought Patterns.” The Executive, 5(3), 87-95.