Why You Don’t Feel Motivated—and 6 Ways to Move in a New Direction

Two new articles by motivation expert Susan Fowler point to some of the challenges leaders face in trying to create an engaging and motivating work environment for team members. The two big challenges?  Weaning yourself and others off suboptimal motivators—which Fowler labels as “junk food” motivation—and focusing instead on six best practices that support autonomy, relatedness and competence.

In The Science Behind Why You Don’t Feel Motivated, Fowler shares that people bring different motivational outlooks to the projects they face at work.  Three of these outlooks are suboptimal—disinterested, imposed, and external.  Fowler asks readers to consider a couple of questions to identify if they might be exhibiting signs of one of these three outlooks.  Ask yourself, Am I…

  • Unable to find value or meaning in the project?
  • Feeling imposed? Is there someone pressuring me to get this done? Am I pressuring myself?
  • Feeling resentful?
  • Fearful of what might happen if I don’t do it? Am I concerned about disappointing someone else—or myself?
  • Doing the work in an effort to avoid guilt or shame?
  • Doing the work for the money?
  • Doing the work with hopes of gaining favor, power or status in the eyes of others?
  • Am I taking this on to impress someone else?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your motivation is suboptimal explains Fowler.

“Suboptimal motivation is like junk food. Think about what happens when you are low on energy and go for the quick fix—a candy bar, an order of fries, a caffeinated drink. Your blood sugar spikes and then you crash. That doughnut tasted really good going down, but it didn’t do your body any good—especially in the long term. When your motivation is based on disinterest, external rewards (tangible and intangible), or feeling imposed, you will simply not have the energy, vitality or sense of well-being required to achieve your goals.”

To move in a better direction Fowler suggests a different approach.  In an article on What to Do When Rewards and Incentives Don’t Work Fowler recommends looking at three basic human needs and three ways to rediscover your own personal motivation.

As she explains, “The best motivation comes from three basic psychological needs: autonomy, relatedness and competence, or ARC. When psychological needs are satisfied, people flourish. When these needs are undermined, people languish.”

You can wean yourself—and others—off carrots and sticks by adopting six motivation best practices that support autonomy, relatedness and competence.  Here are Fowler’s recommendations:

Encourage autonomy. Frame deadlines as useful information critical for achieving important goals rather than sticks for applying pressure.

Deepen relatedness. Reframe metrics that have no emotional meaning. Conduct motivational outlook conversations with employees to help them attribute their own sense of meaning to critical organizational goals and outcomes. You cannot impose your values or feelings on others, but you can guide their exploration of values and sense of purpose they find compelling.

Develop people’s competence. Focus on setting learning goals, not just output goals. Shift your focus from accomplishment to building competence. Instead of just asking, “What did you get done today?” try asking, “What did you learn today?”

Promote mindfulness. Prompt awareness of options a person may not have considered. Ask questions such as “Why is this important to you (or not)?” and “Why are you finding this goal so challenging (or rewarding)?” These simple yet powerful, open-ended questions help individuals rise above patterns of behavior that often sabotage their best intentions.

Align with values. Conduct a values conversation with individuals you lead. They may have succumbed to suboptimal motivation based on money, rewards, incentives, power, status, fear, pressure, guilt or shame because they have not consciously or deliberately aligned their work to meaningful values that generate sustained positive energy, vitality and sense of well-being.

Connect to purpose. Your organization has probably spent enormous resources crafting and socializing its vision, purpose and mission. Now help individuals do the same. Encourage the people you lead to develop their own workplace purpose statements. There are few things in life more powerful than acting from a noble purpose.

As Fowler encourages, “The more mindful you are, the more opportunity you have to shift to an optimal motivational outlook. Motivation is a skill. You can learn to experience high-quality motivation any time and any place you choose.”

You can read more on Susan Fowler’s approach to motivation at SUCCESS online.

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