Internal Motivation and Courageous Conversations


Over the years, there have been many theories about what motivates us human beings. Our perspective has shifted as the working world has changed. Way back when, when we were hunter-gatherers, survival was our major motivator. As we moved into the 1900s, Taylor posited that pay was the main motivator. In the 40s, Skinner argued that behaviorism – the carrot (rewards) and stick (punishment) approach – lead to greater engagement. In the late 60s, Maslow, Herzberg and others started to explore internal motivators. They found that the carrots and sticks were only temporary motivators, and that people actually wanted more from their work.

That led to the work of Deci and Ryan, whose 40 years of research has led to Self-Determination Theory. You might have seen this video by Dan Pink which brings the theory to life.

So we now know that there are two kinds of motivators – external and internal.

We also know that motivation is based on human needs. For example, we need money to live, and we need friendship and achievement. And when those needs are not met, we can become bored and frustrated. That’s not good for the individual or the business, as we get ill, are absent more frequently (both physically out of the office, and psychologically not really bringing our A-game to work, even when we are at work), attrition.

So low motivation is a bad thing. I don’t think anyone would dispute that.

But here’s the thing, and I alluded to it above. Multiple studies have found that the external rewards, such as pay, promotion, bonuses:

  • Undermine long-term motivation and performance
  • Undermine it even more, if they enjoyed doing it in the first place with no rewards
  • Stifle creativity and problem solving.

That’s not to say we won’t work towards getting that pay-rise or the promotion, but once we get it, our motivation level plummets almost immediately.

Internal motivation is entirely different – and sustainable.

It’s all about finding an activity inherently satisfying; or doing the task because some other need is important to us, such as contributing as part of a team.

And every single one of us shares the same three basic needs in life:

  • Competence and mastery – feeling that our knowledge and skills are valuable, and that we can develop them
  • Relatedness – collaborating with others
  • Autonomy – individual flexibility to choose how/when to shape your work (within boundaries)

So what does all of this have to do with Courageous Conversations? Well, as supervisors of people, we have the capacity to shape the environment – and our conversations – in ways that draw on the three intrinsic motivators. What ideas do you have for shaping conversations, in a way that develops others’ competence, relatedness and autonomy?