What Really Motivates Us? A Coaching Story

In our world, we often find ourselves working with C-suite executives who don’t make the time or effort to give their direct reports regular, meaningful feedback. It’s not because they don’t care. It’s because they often don’t realize that what motivates virtually all of us is fairly simple: we want to know where we fit in and that what we do matters.

I was struck recently when I learned that someone I coach — a senior leader (we’ll call him Todd) at a Fortune 100 company—was very disappointed by the lack of feedback he got from his boss, the CEO, at his most recent annual review.

For Todd, this was a dramatic contrast to how he worked with his direct reports over the preceding year. He took his responsibility for giving his direct reports annual feedback very seriously. He labored over how to be both positive and constructive, offering a bevy of developmental opportunities for his people.

At his review, Todd, who already makes 7 figures, was informed of both a promotion and a raise. But for him, all the money in the world does not take the place of hearing specific, meaningful feedback from his boss. He felt it as a slight, as disrespect, that his boss appeared not to see the value in that kind of conversation.

We know from the research on motivation theory that a number of factors influence behavior at work, ranging from compensation to culture and climate to personal drive. One of the more interesting takes on the motivation approach for the 21st century came out of a recent TED talk by author (and former speech writer for VP Al Gore), Daniel Pink (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html). He claims that extrinsic rewards (pay, promotions) do motivate people but only for routine tasks. Why? Because rewards narrow our focus toward a single goal. Thus, certain kinds of repeated tasks lend themselves to these kinds of incentives. However, that narrowed focus has a flip side: it limits creativity and reduces perceived options. So, for complex tasks that require innovation in problem-solving or idea generation, those incentives don’t help, they hinder because they narrow our focus. What opens us up is something else altogether: meaning and purpose.

Pink’s talk echoes many of the claims made in the positive psychology research, with his particular take building off of the work of Sam Glucksberg in the famous, Candle Problem experiment. For a brief overview of the Candle Problem, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Candle_Problem

Pink argues there are three motivating forces for today’s work world: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is about independence in determining our direction; mastery is about improving our ability to do things that matter; and purpose is tied to contributing to something larger than ourselves.

If we go back to the case with Todd, we see that his boss, the CEO, didn’t take full advantage of Todd’s intrinsic motivations. In this case, he did give him autonomy, which is very important to Todd with regard to job satisfaction as a senior leader. But his boss missed mastery and purpose. To really motivate today’s leaders, we have to move beyond incentives designed for taskmasters, and provide the thoughtful feedback that speaks to strategists and thinkers.  Todd’s boss could have hit a home run if he had supported Todd in getting better at things that matter to him (such as building a strong team), and speaking with him about the ways his work has and could contribute to something meaningful in the world, beyond Todd, beyond his team, beyond the organization.

Taking the time to reflect on how best to keep our people happy and engaged at work, requires that we make the effort to connect. That is why a core leadership competency is empathy—understanding what is important and matters most to the people whom we lead—what are their professional dreams and how can we help them to achieve those dreams? That is the work of a leader.

Once you know that, feedback can tie into the intrinsic motivations, supporting them to direct their own professional lives in ways that allow them to get better at what matters and make a difference in the world. Leaders who get this will be in league with the best organizations, those who understand that to reach our true potential as people, organizations and societies, we need to move beyond the limited models of extrinsic rewards and design our organizations to act on the range of intrinsic motivations we all share. Because leaders get more, not less, concerned with their legacy the more senior they become in organizations, the demands for CEOs and other executives to speak to intrinsic motivators of those who occupy the C-suite is a business imperative. In other words, if you want to keep you’re A-list executives like Todd, it behooves you make the time to talk about purpose and meaning, you’re likely to spark more energy than you ever thought possible.

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