Last week, one reader asked me if I could write about motivation. It made me think of all the articles, books and videos I watched and read. Most of the content focused on the superficial aspect of motivation: How to be motivated and how to motivate others. It is not a bad thing but we are missing the important piece of the puzzle, which is the origin of motivation.
Leaders want employees to be driven because motivated employees achieve more than those who are not.
But what is motivation? Where does it come from?
We associate motivation with perseverance, results, and success but we do not reflect on the root of motivation. I would like to shed a light on two schools of motivation. The motivation by fear of something and the motivation by desire for something.
The motivation by fear implies that a person acts only because one is afraid of something. If the person was not afraid, he / she would not take the action implied by the motivation.
The motivation by desire implies that the person is willing to take action because they long for something. In this case, whatever happens the person will be driven to achieve the goals to fulfill the desire he / she has.
Motivation by fear is manipulation
In the business context, we see the use of fear to “motivate” employees as the principle leverage used. Fears have different shades,intensity level and can be categorized as follow:
- Fear of rejection / of not being accepted
We are social animals and need connection with our identified group to fully function. The fear of rejection by a peer or your team may be strong enough to push someone into action. Think of teams where some individuals will follow the “silent” rules including racism, sexism, and xenophobic behavior just to be accepted. The “dominant group”, like the healthy white men and women, makes it a habit of making terrible comments to and about women, handicapped and people of colors in front of their peers to show that they belong to a “higher” group or an elevated status.
- Fear of disappointing someone
In a patriarchal company, the figure of the boss (or the father) is significant. The opinion of the boss has far more weight than the one of an employee. We all learned that we must respect the boss whatever it costs. A disappointed boss may punish you. Furthermore, our school system ingrained us with the idea of performing and being judged by someone else. The teacher has so much power over you that it is best to please him / her. The teacher can change your life in many ways by writing positive or negative review, giving you the grade to pass or fail you, and encouraging a certain/precise path of study… Now let’s add to the fact that if you do not belong to the nation’s major ethnicity you are departing from far beyond the starting line. The teacher / boss is going to be easily disappointed with you because of their biases.
- Fear of losing something or someone
Bosses may also play with your fear of losing your position in the team or not obtaining the increase you asked for. They may also implicitly explain that if you do not behave, you will lose your job. Job safety is important to everyone and even more when we have children to take care of and other responsibilities. This may “motivate” employees to work for a company or a boss even if the desire is not there.
Some people are manipulating others in order to achieve professional goals. I heard and observed many situation where someone would play around with people feeling to get them to do whatever they wanted.
- Fear caused by violence
Violence in the workplace is usually in the psychological form because physical violence is visible and therefore easier to expose. There are different levels and intensity of violence, it may start with verbal aggression once in awhile then progress to daily full-on attacks of the person. We may all become subjects to psychological violence and it may be difficult to distinguish between someone who were just upset once versus someone already toxic. In situations where you find yourself unwell due to the presence of someone because he / she may say or do something that make you feel threatened, you may be subject to psychological violence.
Motivation by fear only works when people are scared
There is a wave of awareness on well-being at work. More and more people are recognizing that motivation by fear is preventable. Using fear to lead only works as long as the employees allow themselves to be scared. Employees won’t be motivated when the fear is too big that their only chance to survive is to ignore it or leave the situation altogether if it cannot be changed. I stayed in a fear-driven company until I decided that I deserved better, much better.
Going away from certain situation is not a sign of weakness but a sign of wisdom, where you tried everything to improve the situation without success or with much hindrance.
Motivation by fear often works because we are in a workplace system where the boss is given more power than the employee. The boss can easily play around with your fears to manipulate you. The power imbalance can be enforced through hierarchical relationship, different level of skills, knowledge and access to information.
Furthermore, the boss who manipulates his employees with fear is often scared to lose his power over them. He may escalate his manipulation. Do you think that your boss or even yourself motivate others by enforcing fear? What behavior could you observe? Which kind of fear is being played with?
Motivation by fear is, in the end, insane for both the manipulator and the person manipulated.
Motivation by desire is validation
On the other side, motivation rooted in the desire to achieve something is what I call the existential motivation. Often, employees and leaders want to achieve something bigger than themselves. They have a vision of what they want to achieve. The origin of such motivation varies from employee to employee. Existential motivation originates from inspiration, out of our true self and life experience. We can be motivated by different desires in our lives, which means that we may have more source of energy than we think we have. I can identify a few origins of existential motivation:
- Desire to solve a problem
We all face problems in life. We might get ill or someone we love. It is innate to look for a solution in solving a problem. In this case, we use our skills to get closer to a solution. We identified a problem or the lack of a suitable solution and want to achieve this vision of a world where we rush in solving a problem as soon as it is identified. Think of Steve Jobs, for example, he wanted to create a computer because he could not find it anywhere else. He was driven by the problem-solving motivation.
- Desire to achieve mastery
Usually, the desire to master a skill or to deepen our knowledge in a specific area originates during childhood or early teenage years. People are also motivated by grit. Something drives them to work harder, longer and deeper than the usual player. It is a dedication to achieve mastery, to have a deep knowledge and/or skills in a specific area. The best examples can be found not only in sport but also in sciences. Usain Bolt is a good example of mastery motivation.
- Desire to make the world a better place
Some people just have a deep desire to improve the world. They see something that could be changed to improve the world. For example, people who fought against slavery saw the need to improve the human conditions. They decide to take action to improve the world. Not everyone can be Mother Theresa but some people focus their life in elevating the world through their work. This is, in a nutshell, my main desire. I want to participate in the development of more human-centered companies, where people can fulfill their existential motivation while making money to sustain the general economy of the country, themselves, and their family.
- Desire to improve oneself
This desire originates from a need to become a peacemaker. It means looking at oneself with love and compassion in order to identify areas for improvement. One may need improvement in communication while another one may need to improve his / her self-reflection. A person who seek to improve him-/herself develop behavior that support his/her long term happiness and satisfaction. It is then possible to lead by example. We can think of spiritual guides or famous religious people such as Jesus and Buddha.
When we are motivated by desire we become leaders.
You may have identified the origins of your own motivation and realized that you are primarily motivated by fear. It is understandable because we were raised to fit in boxes that do not fit us. We grew up with the desire to be loved and accepted and lose the connection with our inner child, the one who knows what we need and desire.
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