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Dr. Paul P. Baard's Motivation Matters: Why people do what they do

June 01. 2014 9:57PM

Motivation is the fuel that drives human behavior. Successful coaches in sports and leaders in business are often credited with being great motivators. But research and experience suggest too many of these managers of people are tapping into the wrong kind of motivation, and ill consequences often result.

In fact, current research is examining the link between highly controlling leaders in both business and sports and increased poor health and injuries in those under their influence. Pressure interferes with psychological flow, necessary for best performance. Good teams sometimes go into losing streaks because of excessive urgings of coaches to “get out there and win!” (as if this thought had not already occurred to these professionals). Anxiety is both disabling and contagious.

Motivation is about energy. It’s why we do what we do (and why we don’t do what we don’t do). Managers often ask: “How can I better motivate these people?!” Regrettably, this is starting a journey down the wrong path. The usual response they receive from advisers is along the lines of “Use some incentives for increased performance (and have a punishment plan at the ready for the ‘or else’ part of your message).”

These carrots (rewards) and sticks (threats of punishment) do not really motivate people, so much as they manipulate them. While one may achieve some level of compliance and therefore temporarily improve productivity, there is not likely to be any real buy-in to a different way of doing things. But there is certainly a place for rewards, such as for confirming a job well done. More on this another time.

So a good starting point is to examine the types of motivation we all encounter in life. First of all — and best of all — is intrinsic motivation. It is the “I really enjoy being here, doing this!”-kind. This is what we experience when we are engaged in an activity from which we derive satisfaction and enjoyment. Think of a favorite hobby or sport, or a challenging business assignment. Your engagement in this endeavor is driven, in large part, by the activity itself — not just focused on some outside consequence such as a prize or reward. You want to take your tennis game to the next level. It’s a challenge to your current abilities or skills.

Intrinsic motivation becomes an almost insatiable source of energy. Sometimes work can even be this way as you show up on a Saturday morning in the hope of solving a puzzling problem or to meet a challenging need of a client or boss. It is interesting to observe an infant in a crib. We can see how fascinated she is in examining a play toy or watching the mobile above her. We all started out with this curiosity — discovery was intrinsically rewarding. Intrinsic motivation comes from within.

Perhaps more familiar to us in the day-to-day of work, and even sport, is extrinsic motivation. This is the type of drive where one’s primary focus is on something outside of the activity itself. So now, the Saturday excursion into the office or plant is made mostly to curry favor with your employer, or to satisfy some goal or demand your boss has set for you. Now it is more of a pressure that is exacting effort from you, not the excitement inherent in stretching your abilities. That game of tennis is now being played to win a trophy or to have bragging rights at the club.

The last, and the least, desirable motivation is called amotivation, the absence of purposeful behavior. It sounds like this: “How little can I do without getting fired?” It encompasses those times when everything seems futile: “I’m not going to get promoted here no matter what I do” and “These expectations of management are totally beyond reach!”

W. Edwards Deming, the late prominent management expert credited with Japan’s surge in quality products years ago, put it this way in the Wall Street Journal: “What’s wrong with American management? We are all born with intrinsic motivation … an eagerness to learn. Our present system … crushes it out.”

In columns to come we will examine certain psychological needs which, when satisfied, lead to self-motivated employees (as well as children, students, and athletes). Be assured, these insights stem from strong theory and research, and proven applications. I hope you enjoy the journey.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational and sports psychologist with Fordham University, and is the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and his wife, Veronica, a former senior HR executive, head up a consulting firm based in Campton, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at

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