Motivation and why it matters

dr joan-mary hinds, june 2015

WE ALL KNOW MOTIVATION when we feel it, even if we don’t quite understand it. However, we enjoy the sensation. We recall with pleasure our experiences of being motivated in the past, and actively seek to be motivated again. This is because motivation is both a happy and productive condition.

It’s also a very complex phenomenon, but we all know from personal experience exactly what it means to us and what it can deliver. Being motivated means that we are stimulated, active, energetic, enthusiastic, happy and feeling alive. We have ‘get up and go’, we have initiative and a sense of purpose. It also means we can achieve some amazing things.

On the other hand not being motivated can be a problem for us. Long periods of lacking motivation are uncomfortable and can even be physically painful. Periods of low or no motivation cause us concern: we worry that our natural vitality seems to have disappeared, or has been extinguished. In extreme cases unmotivated people will describe themselves as feeling uninterested, listless, dissatisfied, unresponsive, or even depressed.

Hence there’s now a whole industry of motivational speakers and gurus to deal with the problem. They can command high prices for what is mostly a temporary outcome. We feel motivated straight after hearing one of them speak, but a few days later we’re back to our old selves. The motivation industry, like the slimming industry, flourishes on failure. We will line up for the next fix once the last one has come to naught. Why is this so?

Motivation is very important to us as individuals because it means we experience an appetite for, and satisfaction in, life itself. It’s also important in the people around us. 

Motivated students learn more quickly, retain information for longer and gain greater pleasure in the learning. Motivated friends and relatives are more cheerful, more responsive and responsible, and provide a more open environment for play and leisure. Motivated employees work with more enthusiasm, achieve more in a shorter time, gain greater satisfaction and remain loyal to their jobs and the organisation. 

A little scientific terminology might be helpful at this stage. Motivation is the experience or condition that accompanies the flow of positive energy found in humans. The energy source is based on what is variously known as instincts, needs or drives – a reminder of humans’ membership of the animal kingdom. Survival is an example of an instinct, need or drive. These needs – I’ll use this word from here on for simplicity sake – are usually expressed to achieve an objective, or some type of fulfillment. When they’re being expressed or used, the individual is feeling or being motivated. 

By contrast, these needs can be blocked or prevented from being expressed: this is negative motivation, the opposite of motivation. To illustrate the difference, imagine a tiger. In the wild where the tiger is mating and hunting, it is expressing its needs. Once a tiger’s confined to a cage, its needs are being blocked and repressed.

This example of energy in the wild versus confinement in the cage provides a visual metaphor of the expression and suppression of needs in the wider family of animals to which humans belong. In humans as in other animals, needs can be expressed or suppressed. Understanding this – expression vs suppression – is a key to understanding motivation.

my motivated career

I’ve spent over four decades researching, investigating and working in the field of workplace employee motivation and dynamics. With a foundation in social work, clinical and depth psychology, secondary and tertiary education, arts administration, government policy development or communication and human resources management, my path finally led to the establishment of a successful research consultancy, which has provided much of the rich material for understanding human motivation and its dynamics at work.

Milestones along my journey have included:
•    Early clinical and academic focus on understanding boredom and motivation, particularly in students and employees
•    Original research to identify the preconditions (causes) of employee motivation beyond simple stimulation
•    Further original research to develop the Hinds Motivation–Boredom Continuum
•    Construction of the Hinds Model of Employee Motivation
•    Creation of an award-winning employee motivation survey
•    Delivery of people-performance enhancing research and action solutions for many clients.

The employee motivation survey developed from my research and consulting work won a number of professional awards for innovation and change, including the 1992 ANZAM award for research excellence. It was available to our clients as the Employee Motivation and Performance Index (EMPI®) and has recently been significantly updated and modified for distribution via the Peoplepie online team survey platform.  

to cut to the chase… 

My main ideas on motivation: what it is and why it matters are simple and straightforward.

  • Current business management and organisational psychology thinking suggests widespread acceptance of a needs-based theoretical approach to understanding and defining employee motivation
  • The origin of human motivation is derived from the operation of three intrinsic needs (instincts or drives), an echo of our animal instincts for procreation and survival, with the addition of an exclusively human dimension – the need for spirituality or creativity
  • Higher levels of motivation occur as a result of the expression or satisfaction of these three human needs. In the workplace, these can be understood as needs for: 

Affiliation, or bonding, friendship and community - WE
Achievement, or winning, success and competence - ME
Actualisation, or meaning, purpose or creativity – IT

Figure 1: Tripartite motivation

  • Motivation operates on a continuum with its opposite commonly known as boredom. Positive aspects of employee motivation are matched by their negatives, specifically types of boredom. Thus we have the Affiliation need on a continuum from interest to apathy, the Achievement need running from satisfaction to frustration, and the Actualisation need running from commitment to escapism.
  • The behaviours and sensations along the length of the positive/negative continuum provide a set of symptoms that accurately measure the levels of motivation to de-motivation or boredom.
  • The three needs Affiliation (WE); Achievement (ME); Actualisation (IT) that underpin motivation are universal, but vary in dominance from one individual to the next depending upon their personality, life stage and circumstances. For motivation to exist, all three needs must be expressed or satisfied, even if to varying degrees at different times.
  • The key precondition or cause of human motivation is to achieve the right balance between freedom within order or structure.
  • Extensive empirical research has defined and solidified this precondition by identifying seven main factors that significantly impact or operate as drivers for employee motivation: these are Job, Alignment, Employer, Development, Influence, Manager and Leadership.
  • Effecting or raising employee motivation delivers a positive knock-on effect to organisational performance, which in turn leads to a reduction of business problems and an increase in employee loyalty, sales, business success and ultimately profits.

why does it matter?

Human motivation is a fascinating topic, and understanding motivation and its dynamics carries implications for all of us in our personal and professional lives. Many people tell me how much they would like to understand what motivates their families, their friends, their employees and their colleagues. Every detective or ‘who dun-nit’ story is underpinned by the search for motivation: to find out why, who benefits, and to track the perpetrator.

The springs of human motivation form the bedrock of all the creative arts, and explain history and indeed all human events including war and peace. 

An understanding of motivation provides us with greater emotional intelligence and capacity for more successful management of both our work and play. It provides a better foundation from which to conduct our affairs, whether private or on the world stage. It provides an opportunity for leaders in any situation to set the path, inspire the loyalty, set the measures and implement the actions for higher employee motivation and higher productivity.  

Motivation is the energy force that separates the exciting from the mundane. It’s the source of vitality and capacity to derive satisfaction and enjoyment from life and work. Consciously or unwittingly, everyone is interested in motivation, or at least in being motivated.

Read more about motivation in Joan-Mary's book published in mid 2016. WE. ME. IT. Compelling insights into the essence of human motivation available from Amazon and HERE