People with Talent (Like Us) 2 | What Motivates You?

Motivation is a complex - and vital - subject. Several researchers have sought to explain its influence on human behavior. We’ve all heard of one theory or another. It’s normal to take an interest in better understanding what motivates us, pulls us out of inertia and gives us the strength to overcome the difficulties of everyday life, as opposed to giving up and doing nothing.

People With Talent 2

Pyramid-building - the origins of motivation theory

A number of studies have addressed motivation and several theories and approaches seek to explain how it is forged, how the ‘energy’ that moves us is born. We’ll touch on four authors: Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg, Douglas McGregor, and Daniel Pink, the contemporary best-selling writer we visited in the previous chapter.

In a succinct, even simplified way, Maslow's famous Pyramid relates motivation to a set of needs. It argues that when our basic physiological needs such as food, safety or health are not met, higher needs such as love, esteem and self-actualization won’t be completely satisfied. Dissatisfaction will result due to an absence of motivational stimuli.

Born in the early 20th century, Abraham Maslow was the first human behavior researcher to present a motivation theory. Even today we often think of it.

Consider the isolation caused by the pandemic. Someone confined to his house with a garden and swimming pool, with no economic constraints, is in a very different position to a freelancer burdened with a mortgage or other loans, with no guarantee of income and no way to feed his children should the quarantine continue.

In the first case, the person’s basic needs are completely satisfied. His main deprivations are travel, live entertainment and culture. In the second case, these needs are hardly top of the list. For the time being at least, he is tied to basic needs.

Hygiene and Motivation: Herzberg’s Two-factor Theory 

Herzberg relates satisfaction to the challenging or stimulating nature of our tasks or function in terms of content or related activities: ‘motivation factors’.

Dissatisfaction arises when there is a misalignment between our personal values and needs and our environment: the leadership style, for example, or the personalities of our colleagues and the general context of our function (responsibilities and other aspects). These are the ‘hygiene factors.’ In field studies Herzberg found empirical evidence for hygiene and motivation factors, two distinct items that must be taken into consideration in fulfilling any function.

Hygiene factors refer to tangible and environmental working conditions: wages, social benefits, company policies, supervisory and leadership style, the climate of our relationships, internal regulations, opportunities, and so on. Organizations traditionally used them to create employee motivation. For Herzberg, however, hygiene factors only have a limited ability to influence behavior and are simply intended to avoid sources of environmental dissatisfaction, or potential threats to the equilibrium of important environmental factors. Hygiene factors cannot increase satisfaction in any substantial or permanent way. On the other hand, when they are compromised, they can actually cause dissatisfaction.

Motivation factors refer to the content and purpose of functions and tasks. They produce lasting satisfaction and have a positive effect on productivity, stimulating above norm levels of excellence.

For Herzberg, ‘motivation’ involves feelings of accomplishment, growth and professional recognition, expressed through performing tasks and activities that offer sufficient challenge and meaning.

At an optimal level, motivation factors substantially increase satisfaction; when compromised, they result in the absence of satisfaction.

In a nutshell, the Two-factor Theory states that satisfaction is related to challenging or stimulating professional content or activities — motivation factors. Satisfaction also requires a fit with the environment, the leadership style, the values of colleagues and the general organizational context - hygiene factors.

X or Y? MacGregor’s Theory

This is actually a set of two opposite extremes of assumptions: X and Y (hence Theory X and Theory Y). If we accept Theory X and behave accordingly, people will be demotivated. On the other hand, if we accept Theory Y and behave accordingly, people will be motivated.

Theory X: Humans don’t like work and try to avoid it, so they need to be forced, controlled and directed. People prefer to be directed and by default have little ambition, seeking only safety.

Theory Y: Expending effort at work is natural; external control and threat are not an adequate way of obtaining better results; people will exercise self-control and self-direction if their needs are met; they usually seek to take responsibility for what they do; anyone will exercise and apply their mastery when given self-direction and self-control.

20th century reward mechanisms, which we once thought were a natural part of business, only work in a surprisingly narrow range of circumstances. This kind of reward often destroys creativity.

The secret for high performance is not reward and punishment, but people’s invisible, intrinsic desire to independently do the things that matter.

Frederick Herzberg and Douglas McGregor lived during the 20th century and their theories were very inspiring at the time. These authors perceptively took a more elaborate and organizational approach than before.

Thanks to their work it has been found that leaders need to understand and provide for pressing hygiene factors. However, motivation will only be present if people are autonomous and committed to an objective. In practice, we need good working conditions, adequate compensation, an esthetically-pleasing workplace (or home office) and even a fun environment. However, feeling part of a body with a common goal is an unavoidable necessity.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Daniel Pink’s Drivers

Daniel Pink is writing and researching now. He explains how we can take advantage of our creativity and disruptive capacity, positioning ourselves within the purpose of organizations.

In Drive, he points us to global phenomena of work and knowledge-sharing such as Wikipedia, which exist without remunerative interest. He emphasizes the importance of autonomy, empowerment and purpose in gaining unlimited ‘achievement energy’, setting us on the path of self-fulfillment.

He explains that new studies are now closing the gap between theory and practice by exploring the intrinsic motivation that enables us to perform, enjoy what we do and contribute to an objective in an interesting way.

Of the two types of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic, the latter most interests us in the 21st century: work is less mechanized and more based on creative processes. For Pink, extrinsic motivation might have worked for mechanical tasks (based on reward or punishment, carrot and stick). However for cognitive tasks, experiments reveal that the greater the reward, the worse the performance. Reward can even cancel out creativity.

This doesn’t mean that money doesn’t matter, of course it does, but once we’re well paid, it is not a greater reward that will create motivation. We are motivated because what we do matters, because we like what we do, because it contributes to a greater good.

Daniel Pink's theory of intrinsic motivation is based on three pillars: autonomy, mastery (or improvement) and purpose.

  1. Autonomy: the desire to control our own lives.
  2. Mastery: the desire to improve more and more, doing something that matters.
  3. Purpose: the desire that what we do should serve something greater than ourselves.

Carminho’s Story

Carminho had just completed her degree at the School of Fine Arts. She began to feel drawn towards a specialism in clothing design, fashion. In London, she got a part-time job as a sales assistant at Harrods. She also enrolled in the three-year Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Fashion at the Cambridge School of Visual and Performing Arts.

However, teachers didn’t always comprehend her work. She performed far better when facing an unconventional teacher. Equally, her performance would drop radically in the face of more conventional teachers who tended to demand followership and value the predictable.

“But can people actually wear what you’re designing?’ asked the people with a pre-formatted vision.

Indeed, at times it seemed that she didn’t really want to dress people. Her work was sometimes so straight-lined and stiff that it looked more like an architectural project. She even added explanations, calculations and formulae. A very good descriptive geometry student, she commented that her knowledge about equations and numbers came in very useful. Without it she would be unable to bring her work to life, beyond her imagination.

As always, the best seek out the best. From time to time a famous Antwerp design house visited the school on a talent-spotting quest.

Carminho's work got noticed and the design house invited her to consider a move to Antwerp. The package was too good to refuse. A wage far above average, bonuses for any collection in which she participated, accommodation, trips to her home country of Portugal every three months, and insurance. The working conditions were also great: a spectacular location, a wonderful atmosphere, and all the digital tools at her disposal.

In this story you will find inspiration about what motivated Carminho and how she was wise enough not to fall into the temptation of fame and fortune, destroying her own purpose. On the contrary, she achieved a sustainable way of life — on her own terms.


About the Author

A specialist in leadership and talent management, Maria da Glória Ribeiro is the Founder and Managing Partner of Amrop Portugal. With a Masters in Psychology from the University of Porto, and specialized in business organizational development, she has over 20 years’ experience in strategic consulting and organizational behavior. She is called upon to evaluate, guide and recruit talents for companies from diverse professional sectors. She has been recognized as one of the main Portuguese headhunters by Nancy Garrison-Jenn, (The Global 200 Executive Recruiters).

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