How Well Do You Know What Motivates You?
Simple steps to fulfilling your potential.
Posted November 18, 2015
Over the last 20 years, I’ve asked thousands of people what motivates them and the reply – more often than not – is surprisingly vague. I find this curious because understanding motivations is a requirement for anyone who wants to be fulfilled and effective in their professional and personal life.
Take the example of Ravi who ran one of the most successful business units in his organization. His team’s sales figures were at a record high but he wanted to leave his job, and he couldn’t understand why. He thought he may be burnt out or depressed, but as we reviewed the times in his career when he’d been most passionate about his work, a different picture emerged. Ravi’s most fulfilling roles had always involved solving technical challenges and yet he was now expected to focus all his time and energy on managing others.
As we looked further, there was more. Ravi was well paid in his current role and grateful for the personal benefits this brought, but he didn’t find the money particularly satisfying. When he looked back through his working life, he realized that feeling appreciated was worth more to him than financial gain. I hardly needed to ask if he felt thanked by his boss – the answer was no. The picture became clearer still when Ravi identified that, whenever he wasn’t learning new skills, he’d always wanted to move on to a new job. And yet, in his current role, he could deliver his targets with his eyes closed.
So, in a matter of minutes, it became clear that three of Ravi’s top motivations were technical challenges, being thanked for his work and learning new skills, none of which were being met in his job. Somehow this hadn’t been fully evident to him, and his manager was certainly oblivious to it, because they’d never talked about it.
We’re not all the same
The first thing to recognize is that other people’s motivations may be very different to yours. Your top motivation may be the success of your team, while the person at the desk next to you thrives on independence. You may love variety and constant change, but your partner longs for stability and structure. You may be motivated by internal recognition – based on your personal assessment of whether you’ve done a good job – while your teenager desperately wants external recognition.
So how can you get a handle on motivations?
Step 1: Figure out your own motivations
- Think about the times when you’ve been highly motivated and the times when you’ve felt most demoralized. These will both point you to the same set of motivations. For example, in the jobs I’ve loved, I’ve experienced a sense of freedom. In the ones I hated, I felt trapped and suffocated, which is an absence of freedom. You can discover your motivations by reviewing the bad times as well as the good ones.
- Now conduct a personal experiment. As you go through your week, notice what’s motivating and demotivating you. If you come home and say you’ve had a good day, why was it good? Just as important, what made your day bad? You may think it’s just because ‘stuff happened’ or ‘stuff didn’t happen’, but there’s usually a link to motivations.
- Create a list of motivations and then rank them in order of priority. This is a subjective process. For example, here is my list of motivations when I’m at work:
- Having a sense of freedom
- Taking on impossible challenges
- Working in partnership with people I trust and respect
- Feeling that my contribution is making a difference
- Expressing my creative spirit
- Being fully in communication with others
- Feeling trusted, valued and acknowledged
- Having variety in my work
- Learning new skills that stretch me
- Being competitive and winning.
When my motivations are being met, I love every minute of my work. When they’re not, I get itchy feet or I become miserable. Now I understand what to look for. If I can’t see a big challenge, or don’t feel able to make a difference, I know I’ll be better off going elsewhere. If there isn’t room for my creative expression, I’ll feel constrained and frustrated.
- Test your list as you go about your everyday life. While it may change slightly according to your life circumstances, many of our motivations remain remarkably stable over time.
Step 2: Ask people about their motivations
- If you manage a team, schedule time with each person and follow the same process of identifying when they’ve been motivated and demotivated; you’ll learn so much about them. If Ravi’s boss had taken the time to do this, he could have prevented a situation where Ravi walked out of the door with 30 years of experience.
- You can do the same exercise as a parent. My teenage son has little interest in academic studies but loves social interaction, wants to feel stimulated by a subject, and enjoys variety. This gives a huge clue to how he learns best. When he has an exam, his revision is more motivating and productive when he conducts it as a conversation with a friend or family member, and when he switches regularly between topics. When we remember to set it up this way, he’s more motivated to study. This approach beats moralistic lectures and nagging complaints, which will only be met with grudging compliance or outright resistance.
Step 3: Talk about motivations
- It’s not enough to notice motivations: what’s important is to discuss them. If you manage people, make sure your one-to-one meetings aren’t just about goals and objectives. For example, if you know that one of your team members is highly motivated by career progression, make sure you periodically review the route-map to a promotion. And if you can’t see opportunities for them to progress soon, be aware that they may leave if a better offer comes up.
- Rather than waiting for your manager to instigate a conversation about motivations, tell your manager what you need from them. They’re not mind readers, so you need to tell them how you operate at your best. The same is true in your relationships and with your family.
There won’t always be a perfect fit between your motivations and the situation you find yourself in, but if you understand how you operate at your best, and discuss this with the people around you, you have a better chance of creating the circumstances that match your motivations. What’s more, if you understand other people’s motivations, you can help them fly.
My book is Blamestorming: Why Conversations Go Wrong and How to Fix Them, published by Watkins.
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