No matter what your full-time job or role in life, most of us are part-time motivators. We not only have to motivate ourselves, but others as well. We need colleagues to complete tasks, partners to do their share, and children to become self-sufficient and responsible.
If it weren’t hard enough to motivate ourselves when tired or bored, it’s even harder to persuade others into action. Motivating others is even more challenging when tasks are difficult, unclear, or distant from any immediate reward.
In spite of all that’s known about motivation, we continue to misunderstand it and fail to make good use of its true nature. We make assumptions about what drives people, grossly over-estimating the value of external rewards and under-estimating the power of simple appreciation and recognition.
The Search for Meaning
Motivating others can’t be reduced to a formula or list of steps to check off. That’s unfortunate for managers, team leaders, and parents. Yet everyone can do a better job of getting others to participate in needed tasks.
“It’s about connecting more deeply to what we do, to the outcome of our efforts, to others, and to our relationships.” Dan Ariely, Payoff: The Hidden Logic that Shapes Our Motivations, Simon & Schuster/TED, 2016.
Motivation drives us to achieve tasks that are difficult, challenging, and painful. We use motivation when there’s something that must be done to achieve a larger goal. When we are motivated, we will do things without joy and under unpleasant conditions. This is because the things that give a sense of meaning to life aren’t always the things that make us happy.
Humans care more deeply about meaning than simple happiness. Most of us will do whatever it takes to find meaning and feelings of connection. We motivate ourselves in a quest to find a purpose or cause bigger than ourselves and our daily routines.
“Knowing what drives us and others is an essential step toward enhancing the inherent joy – and minimizing the confusion – in our lives,” writes Dan Ariely.
In the global workforce today, more than 50 percent of employees are disengaged while only about 17 percent are “actively disengaged” according to recent Gallup data. Gallup has been collecting surveys on employee engagement since 2000 and the problem of lack of motivation has risen steadily by 2 percent a year.
Negative motivation is a big problem. When people are disengaged they show up late, leave early, fail to keep good records, do the minimum, steal things, abuse privileges, and occasionally sabotage their employers- intentionally or unintentionally.
The reasons for disengagement at work are complex and not easily remedied. Incentive programs and external rewards can only do so much and are often ineffective for motivating those who are already disengaged. Research shows that people dramatically underappreciate the extent and depth to which a feeling of accomplishment influences people.
Unfortunately – whether at work, at play, or at home – we quite easily become offenders against human motivation when we ignore, criticize, disregard or destroy the work of others.
The Power of Acknowledgment
Workplace motivation has been studied extensively in endless scenarios. Across the board, results show that when we are acknowledged for our work, we are willing to work harder for less pay. When we are not acknowledged, we lose much of our motivation.
What is meant by acknowledgment? It comes in many varieties but it is basically recognition of someone’s contribution, an expression of appreciation, an indication that their work is valuable and they are an important participant.
Acknowledgment is a kind of magic because strong human connections are experienced when it is given from one person to another. This reinforces social interactions and boosts motivation, energy, and cooperation in both parties.
Money isn’t the simple great motivator most of us assume it to be. Sometimes it is even a disincentive. Motivation is more complex than carrots and sticks.
What We Feel But Can’t See
We are driven by all sorts of intangible, emotional forces, some of which we are aware yet a large portion remains hidden from our own consciousness.
We all have basic needs to be recognized and to feel ownership. We want to feel a sense of accomplishment and autonomy. We want to experience a degree of control and need to know that what we say and do matters.
We crave security and will work long and hard for long-term commitments. Ultimately we strive to achieve a sense of shared purpose. We want to feel that our work and our lives matter even after death.
Knowing all this about human motivation, how can we motivate others? Can it be as simple as increasing expression of appreciation and decreasing criticism? By simply acknowledging the efforts of those working and living with us, we can increase motivation all around.
Which raises some questions. If acknowledgment is so valuable, why aren’t more managers doing it? For that matter, why doesn’t everyone ―co-workers, parents, partners, and family members―express more appreciation in order to boost motivation? Why do we continue to criticize the very people we want to motivate?
“Arguably, the most powerful motivator in the world is our connection to others.”
~ Dan Ariely