3 Needs of Motivation
She’s an expert in motivation, a bestselling author, and a senior consulting partner for The Ken Blanchard Companies. Susan Fowler is a thought leader on discipline and self-leadership. Her latest book is Master Your Motivation. In it, Susan tackles motivation in a fresh way.
Optimal motivation is driven by three needs: choice, connection, and competence. She outlines how to rid yourself of failed motivational tactics and shares ways to go beyond discipline, willpower, and goal setting.
“In a world crying out for effective leadership, I think we need to begin with an obvious source: ourselves.” -Susan Fowler
Motivation is the Energy to Act
You write, teach, and consult on motivation, so I’d like to start with the Susan Fowler definition of motivation. What is it?
Motivation is the energy to act. Motivation, like energy, depends on the how you fuel it. A handful of almonds generates a healthier form of energy than eating a candy bar. The reasons for your motivation determine the quality of your motivation—and your energy to act.
“High-quality motivation results in the positive energy that sustains your efforts to change behavior or achieving your goals.” -Susan Fowler
What do most people get wrong when they think of motivation?
People tend to think of motivation in terms of quantity: Do I have enough motivation; I don’t have the motivation to go to the gym today. But motivation science found that the quality of your motivation is more important than quantity. You can generate high-quality motivation that enhances your creativity, innovative thinking, productivity, and mental and physical health. High-quality motivation results in the positive energy that sustains your efforts to change behavior (like sticking to a healthy eating plan) or achieving your goals.
How to Create Choice
You talk about three truths and I want to touch on them. You say that “To master motivation, create choice.” What are some ways to create choice?
To create choice, begin by realizing you always have choice. Even if you don’t have “freedom,” you can choose how you respond in any situation. To create choice, ask yourself a series of questions such as:
What choices have I made? How do I feel about those choices? Why?
Do I feel the goal or situation was imposed on me? Why?
What choices could I make going forward?
How to Create Connection
Creating connection is the second truth in your book. Are some people more natural at this? How do those who don’t find it second nature cultivate and create connection?
Any personality style can create connection. What prevents some people from experiencing connection is their beliefs and values. If I believe that emotions are a sign of weakness, that feelings have no place in the workplace, that our interactions are business, not personal, then I’ll be more challenged to create connection. If I claim compassion as a value but don’t act on it by donating to a worthy cause, giving my time to those less fortunate than myself, or demonstrating that I care without an ulterior motive, then I’ll be more challenged to create connection.
If I get distracted by external rewards—winning a prize or an incentive for the sake of winning or making more money to gain power, status, or enhanced image—then I am likely to find less meaning in my work, sabotage my relationships, and sacrifice contributing to something greater than myself.
I encourage all adults to explore their beliefs and programmed values. Take notice of how you spend your time and your money. Come to conclusions about what you find meaningful. Find ways to align goals and expectations with your developed values. See how you can connect with a noble purpose.
How to Create Competence
Creating competence is the next one. Talk about this one.
As adults many of us have forgotten that we love to learn. You were once that young child who drove your parents crazy asking “Why?” Watch the exhilaration and determination of a toddler learning to walk.
Because we learn to focus on results rather than the means for attaining results, we forget the joy of growth and learning. But the truth is, we need to see progress—we need to develop skills to be effective in everyday situations. Instead of noticing what we accomplish every day, we need to acknowledge what we learned and reflect on how our increased competence will help us—or others—be more effective tomorrow.
How do we set up proper and healthy feedback opportunities on our choice, connection, and competence levels?
Notice how your body feels and reacts in a situation—I call these physiological disturbances. You are about to walk into a meeting, and you find your stomach tied in knots. Is it because you feel you have no choice going to the meeting or giving input on the meeting’s agenda? Is it because you haven’t found a connection for going (the meeting isn’t meaningful; feels like a waste of time; you dread dealing with a person you can’t stand)? Is it because you fear you don’t have the competence to deal with the issues, conflict, or the people in the meeting? Or, are all three of your psychological needs at risk?
Pay attention to pressure. For example, why am I so tense when driving? Is it because the slow driver in front of me is impeding my need for speed—impeding my need for choice? Is it because I’m worried about offending someone because I’m late—eroding my need for connection? Is it because I’m lost or don’t know how to deal with the road conditions—undermining my need for competence?
Your feelings—both physical and emotional—are useful indicators of whether you are experiencing choice, connection, and competence or not.
Leadership Tip: Instead of punishing mistakes, ask your team: What did you learn today?
Motivation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and you talk about the environment. How do leaders help shift a culture that is based on short-term, traditional motivators to one that is grounded in high-quality, optimal motivators?
I encourage C-Suite executives to work on organizational and job factors that have been shown to promote people’s optimal motivation and that fuels employee work passion such as job design, systems that enable autonomy, methods of feedback, and task variety. But for any one leader to shift an entire organizational culture isn’t practical. Individual leaders can focus on creating pockets of excellence so people are more likely to experience optimal motivation.
Leaders need to let go of current leadership competencies steeped in outdated, unproven, or disproven management and motivation theories such as command and control leadership styles, Maslow’s Hierarchy, Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, and McClelland’s Achievement Motivation. Driving for results, incentivizing motivation with rewards, and pressuring people through fear or intimidation are practices based on animal studies from the early 1900s!
To come out of the Dark Ages and into the compelling new world to apply groundbreaking motivation science, leaders need to focus on how they can help people create choice, connection, and competence.
Instead of driving for results and demanding accountability—they need to encourage choice. Rather than asking what people accomplished today, what if leaders asked people: What choices did you make today that you feel good about? What choices do you wish you could do over? Why? How did the choices you make today provide you with insight about the choices you make tomorrow?
Instead of ignoring feelings and focusing on metrics without meaning—they need to deepen connection. What if leaders asked people: What part of your job did you find most meaningful today? What’s an example of how you aligned with your own values and our organization’s values? How did it make you feel? How do think you are contributing to the greater good, to something greater than yourself?
Instead of punishing mistakes and diminishing training opportunities—they need to build competence. What if leaders asked people: What did you learn today? How will your learning help make you better tomorrow? How might others gain from what you’ve learned?
“Beliefs and values are choices. When our beliefs and values evolve, so do we.” -Susan Fowler
You’ve been at this journey of empowerment for thirty-five years. Where are you on your journey? Have you mastered your motivation?
I can authentically claim that I’m a “better” person today than when I began this journey. I am infinitely more aware of my choices—so make better choices. I am a better collaborator; I’m better at being mindful, feeling empathy, and demonstrating compassion. I am better at aligning my values with my actions, the way I spend my money, and use my time. I am better at being open to learning; better at not being defensive when I make mistakes; and better at being grateful and finding joy in little moments.
The pursuit of optimal motivation not only brings me greater peace, joy, and positive energy—it gives a noble purpose to my life and reason for being. I’ve been told that it rubs off on others.
In a world crying out for effective leadership, I think we need to begin with an obvious source: ourselves. I truly believe that mastering our motivation is a lifetime pursuit—and worth the effort. People can change. We can do more than grow older; we can grow wiser. Beliefs and values are choices. When our beliefs and values evolve, so do we.
For more information, see Master Your Motivation.