by Susan Fowler
illustrations by Christina Chung

Many leadership development efforts are based on outdated notions around motivation. It’s time for leaders to change that.

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If you still refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Herzberg’s hygiene factors or McClelland’s achievement motivation theory, it may be time to rethink your approach to motivation. If you still think of motivation in terms of carrots and sticks based on Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, then it’s definitely time to rethink what you do as a leader and the way you do it.

Motivation is at the heart of everything an individual does — or doesn’t do. If you accept the idea that talent is the primary currency of the modern economy, it behooves you to let go of outdated theories and consider how to integrate the latest motivation science into what you do — and don’t do — to mobilize talent.

The science of motivation provides profound evidence for rethinking leadership development. Two major breakthroughs have advanced our understanding of human motivation, explaining what many have suspected: Many traditional approaches to motivation are ineffective, suspect or potentially harmful to people’s well-being and productivity. These breakthroughs also present exciting opportunities for attaining the results we seek while promoting our employees’ well-being.

Motivation Breakthrough No. 1: People’s basic nature is to thrive.

Despite reports that 70 percent or more of employees are disengaged or actively disengaged, it’s time we awakened to this truth: Nobody wants to be bored or disengaged. People appreciate meaningful challenges. They want to contribute, feel fulfilled and grow and learn every day. No matter what their situation, their basic nature is the desire to thrive. When people thrive at work, good things happen.

Motivation Breakthrough No. 2: What promotes human thriving.

The source of thriving at work is not money, power or status. It’s not promotions, perks or driving for results. Nor is it pressure, tension or fear. The source of people’s thriving comes from satisfying three basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence. They are the essential nutriments for people’s well-being regardless of gender, generation, race or culture. When psychological needs are satisfied, people flourish. When these needs are undermined, people languish.

The Business Case for Focusing on Psychological Needs

When people’s psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence are satisfied, they experience optimal motivation — the type of motivation empirically proven to fuel employee work passion and five important intentions, which are to:

  1. Stay in the organization.
  2. Endorse the organization and its leadership.
  3. Use organizational citizenship behaviors.
  4. Perform at above standard expectations.
  5. Use discretionary effort on behalf of the organization.

Are people motivated by money, power and pressure? Yes. But research proves these suboptimal types of motivation result in suboptimal performance, creativity, innovation and other success factors. Daily doses of suboptimal motivation lead to disengaged employees. Daily doses of optimal motivation lead to employees with work passion.

The first step on the road to higher productivity and sustainable results, and the beginning of improving employee work passion, is to let go of outdated leadership tactics. But letting go isn’t enough. Consider the possibilities of a leadership approach where you proactively help satisfy people’s basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence, or ARC.

Autonomy is people’s need to perceive that they have choices, that what they’re doing is of their own volition, and that they are the source of their own actions.

Traditional practices tend to erode people’s sense of autonomy by depending on tangible and intangible rewards to stimulate people’s behavior or pursuit of distasteful goals; by using controlling language; by imposing goals and deadlines; and by applying pressure.

Relatedness is people’s need to care about and be cared about by others, to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives and to feel that they are contributing to something greater than themselves.

Traditional practices tend to erode people’s sense of relatedness by failing to provide rationale for why work is meaningful or important; by promoting metrics without meaning; by ignoring or dismissing emotions and feelings; and by causing feelings of isolation through injustice and lack of transparency.

Competence is people’s need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities, demonstrating skill over time, and feeling a sense of growth and flourishing.

Traditional practices tend to erode people’s sense of competence by focusing on performance instead of learning; by punishing mistakes; and by not providing appropriate direction and support.

Three Leadership Development Strategies Based on Motivation Science

Employees are longing for inspiring leadership. But even leaders with the best of intentions may unwittingly be thwarting people’s optimal motivation by not providing ARC support.

The good news is that you can update your leadership and your organization’s leadership development strategy by incorporating three ARC-supportive leadership competencies:

  1. Encourage autonomy.
  2. Deepen relatedness.
  3. Build competence.

How to Encourage Autonomy

When you encourage autonomy, you help people perceive that they have choices, that what they are doing is of their own volition and that they are the source of their own actions.

You have alternatives to incentivizing or manipulating behavior with tangible or intangible rewards, applying pressure and focusing on what people can’t or shouldn’t do. Instead, try using noncontrolling language to:

  • State boundaries while exploring the options people have within those boundaries.
  • Present goals and timelines as valuable information necessary for achieving agreed-upon outcomes.
  • Invite choice.

Imagine you’re a sales manager in a pharmaceutical company that has a high pressure, competitive culture. You have clearly stated sales goals for your reps. Given the highly regulated nature of the industry, you have illuminated the boundaries of what reps can and cannot do. For example, you warned a rep that it is illegal to edit a drug’s clinical study to highlight only the good stuff. Later, you discover that the rep did that very thing and you immediately terminate her. What happened?

Telling someone not to do something often gets internalized by the individual as imposed motivation that restricts feelings of autonomy. The pressure your rep felt to generate sales and her desire for autonomy may have been more motivating than her desire to do what she was told.

An alternative approach based on optimal motivation would be to clearly state the boundaries as required by the FDA, but focus the conversation on the rep’s viable options for communicating the drug’s efficacy.

  • Controlling language that erodes autonomy: When selling this product, you must adhere to strict FDA guidelines including (state guidelines). If you go outside the bounds of these guidelines you face immediate termination.
  • Noncontrolling language that encourages autonomy: When selling this product, there are strict boundaries you need to keep in mind that protect you, your client, our company and, most important, the patient who is prescribed the drug. These boundaries are (illuminate boundaries). Within these limits, however, you still have the freedom to make choices and decisions that will affect your client relationships, the quality of your proposals and the effectiveness of your efforts. Let’s talk about the choices you have.

Rethinking leadership development based on the advances in motivation science means shifting the focus from what you want from people to what you want for people.

Encouraging autonomy requires communicating workplace requirements and performance feedback as data or information that the employee needs to be successful without generating feelings of being controlled by pressure, fear, guilt, shame, power, status or tangible or intangible external rewards.

How to Deepen Relatedness

When you deepen relatedness, you help people to care about and feel cared about by others, to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives and to feel that they are contributing to something greater than themselves.

You have alternatives to pushing metrics without meaning, ignoring feelings and reminding people that business isn’t personal. Instead, try to:

  • Offer pure and informational feedback rather than personal or evaluative praising.
  • Help individuals align work and tasks with their own developed values and work-related purpose.
  • Provide rationale and context; frame goals in terms of the welfare of the whole; focus on contributions to the greater good.

Imagine you have an employee with a chip on their shoulder. You have delegated the responsibility of developing a new scheduling system to him. You thought he’d be excited, but he appears resentful and has procrastinated for weeks. If you weren’t so frustrated with him, you might sweeten the deal with an incentive. Instead, you’re inclined to read him the riot act or maybe even threaten him if he doesn’t get the project done in the next 30 days.

An alternative approach based on optimal motivation is to have a meaningful conversation where he acknowledges and understands the reasons for his own suboptimal motivation. Then, you can facilitate his shift to optimal motivation by helping him align the scheduling goal with his values. For example, he says he values learning and working with the team. You can help him appreciate the alignment between developing a new scheduling system with mastering a new skill and helping the team be more efficient.

  • An example of controlling language that erodes relatedness: “I’m really disappointed that you haven’t finished developing the scheduling system. I was counting on you, but it doesn’t seem you even care. You’ve got 30 days to get it done or we’ll have to have a more serious conversation.”
  • Noncontrolling language that deepens relatedness: I noticed that you haven’t begun work on developing the new scheduling system yet, and that you don’t seem excited or interested in the project. If my observation isn’t true, please take the time to update me. If my observation is true, let’s take the time to discuss the reasons for that and how you might find value in the project.

Deepening relatedness doesn’t mean letting people off the hook or allowing them to fail. The skill comes in helping individuals find their own reasons for doing what you need them to do. People will hold themselves accountable when their goals are aligned with their own values, meaning and purpose.

How to Build Competence

When you build competence, you help people feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities, demonstrate skill over time and appreciate their growth and learning.

You have alternatives to throwing people into the water and hoping they learn to swim, making mistakes a mistake and focusing on outcomes instead of effort. Instead, try to:

  • Emphasize learning goals, not just performance goals.
  • Recognize mistakes as part of learning and growing.
  • Ask “What did you learn today?”

Imagine you took the risk of giving a high-profile beta test to a staff member who was eager to take the next step in her career. She failed to follow acceptable criteria in the first round. You are frustrated, angry at her and at yourself for taking the gamble, and even embarrassed because you fear the failure may have tarnished you and your department’s image.

  • An example of controlling language that erodes competence: The beta test failed because you failed to follow standard procedures. We can’t afford to lose our funding because of another failure, so I’m taking over the project.
  • Noncontrolling language that builds competence: Given the results of the beta test and the demanding timelines to meet standard requirements, let’s discuss the direction and support you need from me to get where you need to go.

Building competence requires your understanding that in the beginning, everyone is a learner with needs for high direction. But as an employee’s experience, competence and commitment develop over time, you must exercise flexibility to provide the appropriate amount of direction and support while still encouraging growth and learning.

Why It’s Time to Rethink Leadership Development

Motivation is a strategic issue. The top concerns that keep executives awake at night include promoting innovation to stay ahead of competition and avoiding forced disruption; optimizing employee productivity; moving the needle on employee engagement; dealing with virtual management challenges; inspiring team member excellence; and improving workload and life balance. Motivation is at the heart of each of these issues, yet most senior level leaders still depend on a lethal cocktail of standard incentive programs and pressure to generate results.

ARC-supportive leadership is the antithesis of traditional approaches to motivation that focus on driving for results — yet it has far greater potential to yield better results. Outdated motivation strategies simply fail to address the psychological needs and employee motivation at the heart of organizational effectiveness. Traditional command and control, authoritarian and top-down leadership strategies to motivate people and drive for results have been empirically proven ineffective at delivering results — yet these approaches are still favored by many occupying C-suites.

Many traditional approaches to motivation are ineffective, suspect or potentially harmful to people’s well-being and productivity.

Consider the recent Wells Fargo banking scandal where sales reps were encouraged to open false bank accounts while the bank’s website trumpeted this value statement: “Everything we do is built on trust. It doesn’t happen with one transaction, in one day on the job, or in one quarter. It’s earned relationship by relationship.”

Were sales reps reminded of this value in day-to-day practice? Given the scandal, I cannot imagine managers ever deepened relatedness by asking: How have you demonstrated our value for trust? Or saying: Tell me about how you built trust with a customer today. But I am willing to bet that sales managers regularly undermined relatedness by focusing on metrics without meaning: How many calls did you make today? How many depositors did you sign up today? What’s the percentage increase in your numbers?

I can imagine salespeople with their eye on their bonuses, incentive trips and sales rankings (eroding autonomy). And if they weren’t as successful as expected, I imagine they were afraid of losing their jobs (eroding competence). In either case, their attention was on making their numbers rather than serving their customers. These employees’ suboptimal motivation may explain why so many didn’t have the moral fortitude to stand up and say “I won’t do this.” Instead, they succumbed to a culture where managers focused on driving results while ignoring the ARC-supportive leadership that would’ve been more likely to generate those results.

Compelling research proves that traditional methods of motivation don’t yield the short-term or long-term results they’re designed to deliver. Tragically, recent scandals won’t be the last example of how people are pressured to perform with suboptimal motivation — people who are motivated for the wrong reasons.

When it comes to mobilizing talent in today’s complex global business environment, what we don’t know about human motivation can hurt. Not embracing new leadership skills to support people’s ARC can hurt figuratively by constraining proactive behavior, limiting productivity, stifling performance, diminishing creativity, inhibiting innovation and sabotaging both short-term and long-term results. Ignoring the true nature of human motivation can also hurt people literally by generating ill-being and mental and physical health issues for employees who are coping with constant change, pressure and escalating performance demands.

Rethinking leadership development based on the advances in motivation science means shifting the focus from what you want from people to what you want for people.

If you’re willing to let go of driving for results in favor of creating an environment through ARC-supportive leadership, your people are more likely to achieve the results you need because they’re flourishing as they experience optimal motivation. Rethinking leadership development means everyone wins — and for the right reasons.

Want to Know More?

The ideas in this article are based on the empirical evidence of self-determination theory. Three books expanding the topic:

  • Gagne, Marylene (Ed.). “The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory.” 2014.
  • Deci, Edward and Richard Ryan. “Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness.” 2016.
  • Fowler, Susan. “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging.” 2014.

Susan Fowler is a professor in the Master of Science in executive leadership program at University of San Diego and the author of dozens of articles as well as peer reviewed research. She is also a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Cos.

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