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How often do you do the things you want to do? (Readers currently a bit disgruntled by their work-life-balance might have a strong opinion on this one). I’m not just talking about what you do when you leave the office or wake up on a Saturday morning. How many of your actions are because you truly want to do them?

The reason I am pushing this point is because this week we are discussing the topic of motivation — why leaders must consider deeply what motivation actually is.

When we do something it is, give or take, because of one of two overpowering reasons: 1) you want to do it, or 2) someone else wants you to do it. Some things you do because you yourself want to do them include making a cup of tea, spending time with friends or going shopping for new clothes. On the other hand I’m sure you can think of a number of things you do daily because someone else wants you to: the ironing; shaving (male readers especially will be able to relate — unkempt beards aren’t yet fully back in fashion); your job?

Cup of tea

The reason I said “give or take” before is because sometimes these two types of motivation can be hard to untangle, and this leaves something of a paradox. Your job is a good example: perhaps you want to earn money to live, but the only way to do that is to work a job you don’t want to work. And if you do want to do your job, consider whether you would still be as eager to do it if it were purely voluntary?

We can see that motivation is a tricky topic.

Demotivated

What is especially interesting though is how quickly we can lose motivation we originally thought would never leave us. The things we do that enthuses us can become a chore without us really identifying the cause. So why does this happen?

In secondary school on a couple of lunchtimes a week I volunteered to help run an athletics club at lunchtime. It was fun, rewarding and light relief from the day-to-day of secondary school life. However, when year 12 came around I was offered the opportunity of converting this lunchtime hobby into something that I gained UCAS points from. I was now, essentially, being paid to do this this (admittedly in a heavily inflated, semi-imaginary currency). After a few weeks of doing the same thing, suddenly it felt like a chore; as if I was working to earn something (“if they’re willing to give me UCAS points for this, surely this effort must mean I’m going out of my way somewhat? Wouldn’t it be easier to quit this course and go and play football with my friends at lunch instead?”). What began as a joy, a hobby almost, descended into a burden once it had been incentivised.

Sports day

Studies have shown that children produce better results when they are praised for their effort as opposed to their results. Psychologists from the Universities of Chicago and Stanford conducted a test involving 50 sets of parents and children. Over a number of years, parents’ appraisal methods were studied i.e. did they praise children for their intelligence, their ability, their effort, or was their praise non-specific (“Great!”). By the end of the study, after years had passed, children whose parents had congratulated them for their effort became more open to taking on challenges, better at problem solving, and believed that hard work was more likely to achieve results.

Embedding the mind-set that it is the process that is key to development is vital. We should not be motivated entirely by self-fulfilment in a ‘good result’. Managers and leaders should stress that the period signified by that feeling of ‘hard work’ is more important that the feeling of attainment and victory.

Hard work

This is why exam curricula in school aren’t made up of a list of facts to learn about a topic — the point is that you develop via the process of education, and the skills and strategies you learn on the journey to something. You might be able to learn 100 facts about the French Revolution, but if you can’t contextualise them, make links between them, understand the reasons for them and why they happened, how will you ever be able to translate the knowledge of those 100 facts into something truly beneficial to you?

Looking back, the reason why I became disheartened with the lunchtime athletics club was because, as soon as I was given an incentive to do it, I became unable to focus on the value I was getting out of the process. Before the UCAS carrot was dangled in front of me I was all too happy to make the most of the process of doing the club — I enjoyed the process, and I got a lot out of it. When I started profiting from the process it became less about the process and more about the profit. The work that I was doing was exactly the same, yet my motivation to do had been dissolved by the implication that it was work, work that warranted something extra to make it worthwhile.

In order to get the best out of your employees and ensure motivation stays high, consider that sometimes when you distract people from being able to see the value in the way they get things done by only recognising them once they have got things done, you are at risk of creating a demotivated workforce. It’s not just children or surly secondary-schoolers who react better when they value the process of doing something really well — us adults do too.

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