What is Motivation and Why It’s Important

To lead, one must motivate. And to do that, you must first understand it. For it is possible to use in in ways that cause unintended consequences.
To lead, one must motivate. And to do that, you must first understand it. For it is possible to use in in ways that cause unintended consequences.

 

Overview

Some motivational theories that are completely useless. But others that are practical and tell us how to really motivate behavior. This focus here is on the practical — what is essential to know.  And that starts out with knowing what motivation is and the 8 major sources that motivate us.


by Murray Johannsen. September 20, 2014. Feel free to connect with the author by Linkedin,  Google+  or by  email. Last update: January 6, 2016.


What Is Motivation

“Motivation is the effort, the drive, the desire, and the energy a person uses to activate and maintain goal driven behavior.” — Murray Johannsen

To understand what we see in the behavior of others, we must understand what we can cannot see, we must understand human motivation.

Why Motivation Is Important

“Most salesman try to take the horse and make him drink. The real job is to make the horse thirsty.” — Gabnel Siegel, President, MediCab during a speech to sales reps

Motivation Quote that says, "Motivation will almost always beat mere talent."
Motivation Quote that says, “Motivation will almost always beat mere talent.”

When I was young, I would always ask my Mom about what I would see. I would say, “Why is the sky blue?” and she would say, “Go ask your Dad.” I would ask, “Why do the birds sing?” She would say, “Go ask your Dad.” I would ask, “Why does it rain?” and she would say, “Go ask your Dad.” Then I would go ask my Dad and he would say, “Go ask your Mom.”

As I have gotten old(er), I realized it wasn’t what I could see that I needed to understand, it was the unseen world that would not be seen.

Harnessing human motivation is a core competency of the transformational leader. Unlike managers who tend to rely on authority to make things happen inside organizations, the transformational leader harnesses the power inherent in human motivation.

I remember a few years ago sitting in a class on human motivation with a professor who forced us to read about every published theory on motivation published in the scholarly journals over the past 70 years. Finally, toward the end of the class one courageous (and desperate) student went ahead and asked him, “Of the many theories we have covered, which two or three are the most important to learn and to apply?” The professor gave an ambiguously ambiguous answer which went, “They are all important since each one has been thoroughly researched.”

While a correct answer, it was also completely useless. This led to my search for a set of theories that one can learn and apply in the real world.

A Definition of Motivation 

Motivation Quote: If I knew what brand of whisky he [General Ulysses Grant] drinks, I would send a barrel or so to some other generals. " by Abraham Lincoln
Motivation Quote: If I knew what brand of whisky he [General Ulysses Grant] drinks, I would send a barrel or so to some other generals. ” — Abraham Lincoln
In police work, the related concept is that of motive, which implies some type of goal, a goal with enough motivational energy to cause a criminal act.

Major Types of Motivators

Behavioral Versus Cognitive

Within the world of psychology, there are two general schools of thought regarding motivation. The first school is called the behaviorist school. Those who hold this philosophy are not interested in black box of the human mind–they focus on observable behavior. There are three theories here one must know:

  • Classical Conditioning
  • Operant Conditioning,  and
  • Vicarious Learning (or modeling)

The contrasting school of thought are the motivational theories within the field of cognitive psychology. In this area there are many, many theories that take into account factors such as needs, beliefs, scripts, schemas, volition, attitudes, values, etc.

On the cognitive side of things, three models are worth knowing:

  • Needs (Murray’s and Maslow),
  • Equity Theory, and
  • McClelland’s Learned Needs.

Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation

When we think of types of human motivation, we often start with a fundamental assumption that we are motivated from intrinsic  OR extrinsic motivation factors. However, there is a third option, you are motivated by both.

Case: THE ALLIGATOR POOL

Alligator_Pool,_El_Paso,_Texas
One can overcome almost any adversity if one gets the right push and is truly motivated.

A very wealthy man bought a huge ranch in Arizona and he invited some of his closest associates in to see it. After touring some of the 1500 acres of mountains and rivers and grasslands, he took everybody into the house. The house was as spectacular as the scenery, and out back was the largest swimming pool you have ever seen. However, this gigantic swimming pool was filled with alligators. The rich owner explained it this way: “I value courage more than anything else. Courage is what made me a billionaire. In fact, I think that courage is such a powerful virtue that if anybody is courageous enough to jump in that pool, swim through those alligators and make it to the other side, I’ll give him anything he wants, anything – my house, my land, my money.” Of course, everybody laughed at the absurd challenge and proceeded to follow the owner into the house for lunch … when they suddenly heard a splash. Turning around they saw this guy swimming for his life across the pool, thrashing at the water, as the alligators swarmed after him. After several death defying seconds, the man made it, unharmed to the other side. The rich host was absolutely amazed, but he stuck to his promise. He said, “You are indeed a man of courage and I will stick to my word. What do you want? You can have anything – my house, my land, my money – just tell me what and it’s yours.” The swimmer, breathing heavily, looked up at his host and said, “I just want to know one thing – who pushed me into that pool?” as told by Dr. Charles Garfield, author of Peak Performance

Test Your Understanding: From standpoint of motivation, was the behavior of swimming across the pool:

  • Intrinsically motivated? 
  • Extrinsically motivated? 
  • Both?

Biological (or Genetic) Motivation

Drawing by: Chodowiecki Basedow Tafe
Drawing by: Chodowiecki Basedow Tafe

These are pretty obvious, the body has needs that must be satisfied. The two classic are hunger and thirst. Of course, one can fast for weeks without the body dying but the need for water will kill you quickly. 

These physiological needs can also be related to relief from pain. Or psychological needs can be triggered by pleasure, as in the case of certain drugs that act on the pleasure center of the brain.

Economic Motivation 

One might say, that an economic system has a number of influencers that cause us to conform and fit it. Some of these are pretty obvious, the use of money being the most obvious. Other are more subtle, such as the use of the education system to cause the young to fit into the social roles of that economic system.

Motivation6

According to Adam Smith, motivational factors drive the economic system called capitalism. In this case, rather than thinking about self-love (which is the definition of narcissism), one assumes that he really means acting in a selfish manner.

Social Motivators

Portrait of three lions (one female and two males) of a pride,. Taken in Masai Mara, southwest Kenya by Benh Liue Song.
Portrait of three lions (one female and two males) of a pride,. Taken in Masai Mara, southwest Kenya by Benh Liue Song.

 

 

Humans are a pack animal. We exist within a web of a social relationships and below to many different type of groups. Some of these are purely social such as your friends and you Facebook friends. Some of these are more work oriented such as the such as a professional association or those you know on Linkedin. And of course, we all have families.


How Can One Motivate

The painting by Richard Westaill called the Sword of Damocles. it illustrates a famous story told by Cicero about a young man who was motivated by riches and power.
The painting by Richard Westaill called the Sword of Damocles. it illustrates a famous story told by Cicero about a young man who was motivated by riches and power.

These are more detailed articles about the key sources of motivation you can use to influence motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

The greats in life become great because they are internally or intrinsically motivated.

Extrinsic Motivation

Conversely, the masses (meaning you and me) are likely to be more influenced by extrinsic motivational factors.

Achievement Motivation

Understanding this one is important. After all, wouldn’t you want to know what drives some do their personal best.

Operant Conditioning

If you have a b-school education, you are likely to go, “Huh, what’s an operant conditioning?” But if you have a psychology degree, you will recognize the power inherent in using these techniques immediately.

Practical Motivation: The ABCs of Performance Management

This is a concentration that you can go through on a module by module basis.


 

Leadership Skill Development