What IS Motivation?

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Motivation is a difficult idea to understand. It is not something we can touch or see. As a result we can only infer its presence or absence. And to create or increase staff motivation, managers must intervene in an employee’s world and sense outcomes without any certainty that these interventions will work. Managers must motivate by trial and error.

 So what IS motivation?

Motivation as an IPO System

Motivation as an IPO model

Motivation is the name we give to the processes that ‘run’ within a person that cause them to choose what to do, how much effort to apply to each task and how long to apply effort for. They also cause the person to stop doing what they are doing.

These outcomes are known in academic circles as ‘manifest indicators’. They’re indicators because they allow us to infer that motivation exists by observation of a person’s behaviour. And they are summarised as arousal, direction, effort and persistence.

Decades ago, academics like Maslow, Alderfer and McClelland developed theories about motivation. These have mostly been superseded now but one enduring legacy is the idea that human needs initiate these ‘in-person’ or psychological processes. Maslow talked of physiological, safety, social, esteem and self-actualisation needs. Alderfer reduced these five to three – existence, relatedness and growth. McClelland identified three needs – the need for affiliation, for achievement and for power.

We can all surmise how the need for power initiates psychological processes in dictators or even ambitious politicians or business leaders. This type of person has high ‘power need strength’ and this sparks up the processes in all manner of directions.

 And what CAUSES motivation?

Researchers consider that motivation is ‘caused’ by three things – personality, self-efficacy and expectancies.

People who have a conscientious personality will tend to be motivated to persist in activity on a task until it is finished. And those who are introvert will avoid environments and tasks that force them to be outgoing. In this way one can see that different personalities will be motivated in different ways. And we know that we can measure personality and hence managers can select for a wanted personality when recruiting.

Self-efficacy is the characteristic of a person that allows them to show confidence. A person’s self-efficacy can be enhanced by training and experiences. Self-efficacy is also affected by the environment that the person works in. Working conditions therefore motivate. So managers can intervene in a person’s world to provide training and useful experiences that help to build confidence and competence. And they can intervene to enhance motivation by building an environment conducive to motivation.

And expectancies are anticipated rewards. Rewards can be both extrinsic, like praise from the boss, pay or promotion, and intrinsic, like personal satisfaction in a job well done. One of the most effective actions for leaders to cause followers to achieve great things is to set up effective rewards. These rewards are realised when goals are achieved. TimelessTime authors talk much more about rewards in blogs, articles and white papers elsewhere on this site. One key point from our other writing is that managers should be cautious about focussing too much on financial rewards.

 Again, what IS motivation?

Motivation can be thought of as an input-process-output system (shown above). Inputs are expectancies, self-efficacy and personality. The process is the series of psychological processes fired up by a person’s needs and moderated by the manager’s leadership that realise the outputs of arousal, direction, effort and persistence. These outputs cause the person to allocate resources to the activities in hand.

And these processes are affected by leadership or managerial influence. Once staff have been selected for a role, managers should focus their efforts on these processes to ‘motivate’ their staff through persuasion and other leadership techniques.

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