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Paul Baard's Motivation Matters: Wish you had more self-starters on your team?

June 15. 2014 8:39PM

One way to have more highly motivated employees is to grow them. Easier said than done; it takes an ambitious manager, well-equipped with insights into motivation. But it will be worth it when you find yourself surrounded by low-maintenance self-starters.

This can be accomplished by creating a work environment where certain psychological needs that lead to intrinsic motivation get met. These are needs everyone is born with, even if they are not evident at the moment. Life sometimes crushes out motivation, as when we have a micromanaging, hypercritical or uncaring boss. Ever had one?

So, it stands to reason that if one can create an a motivating environment, then one can create a truly motivating atmosphere. A growing body of research in Self-determination Theory (arguably the leading theory of motivation in the world today, based on empirical research support) is making a case for intrinsic or self-motivation (the “I really like being here”-type) being superior to the more familiar extrinsic motivation (“I’m just in it for the money”-kind of drive). Not only is performance better, but employee illness rates are lower when certain psychological needs are satisfied — the heart of intrinsic motivation.

The first of these innate needs is that for autonomy — for having some influence over how one’s work gets done. Note: This is not a call for permissiveness but rather for respecting the fact that employee involvement is key to his or her taking ownership of the job. For example, soliciting input through Town Hall meetings (live or online), or just encouraging suggestions, perhaps rewarding those that are implemented, are other ways.

If individual or team goals are used, be sure to involve as many as feasible in the setting of those objectives, aware that “A plan imposed is a plan opposed.” The use of assertive language, rather than controlling words, goes a long way toward satisfying this need for autonomy.

For example, a boss’ “I believe the use of a planning calendar will prove useful with the growing responsibilities you are taking on” is a lot easier to hear than “You should start using…” More on communication styles to come.

The second need is for competence — to master a job, grow in knowledge and skills, stretch to accomplish greater things. Intrinsic motivation is about achieving in the face of optimal challenges. (Minimal challenges produce boredom, while maximal ones create anxiety and amotivation.) The alert manager keeps an eye out for employees ready to take on more responsibilities — and that does not necessarily mean promotions. Training is a most obvious way to satisfy this need, yet too many companies do not make this a priority. I often hear: “We use the ’sink or swim’ method here.” That’s another way of saying “We don’t train.” One of the requirements for satisfying the need for competence is feedback: “How am I doing?” Routine employee evaluations — formal in the sense they are planned for and take place throughout the year — allow for improvement and growth, when handled effectively.

“I’m either growing, or I am going” is the unspoken lament of the bored worker with this need frustrated. Maybe in a tough job market employees will be more reluctant to quit, but another way of leaving is to numb out at work — playing online games, etc.

Lastly is the need for relatedness. We need to feel connected, as a valued resource. We want mutual care and respect from our employer and colleagues; “I want to be part of a real team.” Organizations help satisfy this need by having regular meetings;they frustrate it when they pit employees against one another with contests where one has to beat everyone else to get the prize.

An alternative is to reward everyone on the team who meets or exceeds a goal. Some owners might say “I can’t afford to do that!” But what if the unanticipated success lowers expenses or raises revenue beyond projections? Then there would be sufficient profits to reward the whole team.

Perhaps Peter Drucker, described by some as the man who invented modern management, said it best: “The eagerness of people in interesting jobs … to retire is an indictment of today’s management. We must provide an environment in which people want to work.”

Intrinsic motivation is contagious. It has teams “overachieving,” which is another way of saying “I underestimated these guys.” Well, maybe that manager should have expected more.

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

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