13 July 2020

How I Think About Motivation

In the context of our daily work as product leaders understanding peoples’ needs; designing, building and scaling products, services and business models; and designing, managing and scaling teams, the idea of motivation comes up a lot.

My intent is to highlight some of my beliefs about motivation so that others can challenge them and I can learn from others and so that people who work with me know where I am coming from.

Motivation is about wanting

Whilst academics are busy cooking up a grand theory of motivation, let’s define what we mean and where we encounter the term.

  • She is highly motivated to perform
  • He seemed demotivated today
  • The team is not motivated
  • The recent management changes demotivated the team
  • I am not motivated.

From the language alone we can determine that:

  • Motivation is a state that individuals and groups can attain
  • It can apply positively (motivated) and negatively (demotivated)
  • It is impacted by external factors.

From the psychology literature, I will add that motivation can also be internally impacted. Putting this together I will summarise motivation as being:

  • A relative measure of how much a person or group of people want something that is impacted both by internal and external factors.

My beliefs about motivation

  1. I believe that there is intrinsic (internally defined) and extrinsic (externally defined) motivation.
  2. I define intrinsic motivation as a feeling of warmth, growth, satisfaction that comes from inside when we engage in certain activities, generally ones that we enjoy. Examples of this are:
    • A feeling of satisfaction from doing something well
    • A feeling of wonder from learning something new
    • A feeling of attainment from mastering new skills
    • A feeling of warmth, connectedness and belonging from spending time with people you respect
    • A feeling of belonging that comes from receiving share options in a company to which you have contributed time, skill, and passion, or receiving profit-sharing in the same.
  3. I define extrinsic motivation as the external rewards, enticements, and incentives given to encourage a certain type of behaviour. Such as:
    • A cash bonus paid in return for work done
    • Gold stars are given to children
    • Rewarding yourself with a treat like an ice-cream for meeting a milestone or performance goal.
  4. I do not believe that extrinsic is always bad though I do believe that intrinsic is always good.
    • For example, why not pay a cash bonus to someone for doing something they dislike to do but that is vital for the mission? So long as this is done in a way to bolsters self-worth rather than degrading the person and turning into a reward for dirty-work that no-one wants to do, I see no evidence today against this.
  5. I am convinced in the power of positive re-enforcement and recognition for both effort and attainment, or for effort where attainment falls short. Whilst this could be viewed as external and therefore extrinsic motivation, I see it as something that reinforces intrinsic motivation by increasing feelings of self-worth, belonging and mastery. Examples are:
    • Team member of the month which recognizes and rewards effort and/or effort and attainment
    • Surprise bonuses and gifts to recognize effort and/or effort and attainment.
  6. I am convinced that external rewards for intrinsically motivated behaviours can lead to a loss of motivation.
    • I personally experienced a typical version of this demotivation within education. At 16 I attained higher than expected GCSE results and was lauded for being a high achiever. My effort up to 16 was almost certainly in the bottom 50% of the class if not the bottom 25% and was largely intrinsically motivated due to my disdain for authority and generally punkish attitude to life. The external recognition I received weakened whatever intrinsic motivation I had and lead to me dramatically failed my A-level exams at 18.
    • At CloudMade we paid performance-related bonuses for 8 years and saw no evidence that they motivated any increase in performance and had repeated first-hand evidence from staff that they were demotivating.
  7. I believe that teams that show characteristics of relatedness, competency, autonomy and belief in the mission will have highly motivated members and be highly motivated as a collective:
    • Feelings of relatedness and belonging (we really belong together as a team, we have a great team culture, we have a positive vibe, we feel safe)
    • Feelings of competency of the individual and the group (I feel mastery of what I do and my teammates feel mastery as well)
    • Feelings of autonomy of the individual and the group (I feel able to make my own decisions, we are able to make our own decisions, we are free from external interference)
    • Understanding of and alignment of the mission (I believe in our mission, I understand it, I am part of it).
  8. I have experience motivation lagging when I am tired, so whilst motivation is always there, I believe that its ability to drive an outcome may decrease with tiredness, stress, or overwhelm.

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