How to Spur Motivation Using Human’s Three Basic Needs — Leadership I.M.H.O.

In the 1970s, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan (D&R) did a research on theory on motivation. In their research, they’ve determined that there are two main types of motivation — intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. This research led to the concept of “Self-Determination Theory” (SDT) which links to optimal functioning of a person, led by proper motivation.

This is an interesting and useful concept for every leader. Who wouldn’t want to be able to lead a team whose individual contributors are motivated appropriately, and brought up to a level of optimal functioning? That’s a dream of every organizational leader. Let’s discuss further the components of D&R’s study and how we can apply this to our work NOW.

Let’s first define the two main types of motivation. Extrinsic motivation are drivers that result to external rewards or sources. Sources like performance reviews, awards (monetary, certificate, public acknowledgement), and the sense of respect they feel from their peers and colleagues. Intrinsic motivation deals with internal drivers like, our values, morals, principles, and self-fulfillment.

Some prefer only one or the other — intrinsic or extrinsic. Others prefer a combination of both. For some, it depends on that task they’re being motivated to fulfill. Some people value extrinsic motivation at work, while valuing intrinsic motivation when doing charity or volunteer work. Personally, I value the combination of both types of motivation, relative to the setting of the task.

At work, I can see how getting a good performance review drives me to do well in what I do. At the same time, my commitment to the organization that I’ve been a part of for 20 years has instilled a value of service in me that there are several tasks I would do unquestionably regardless if others acknowledge it. At church, I volunteer my time and talents to sing at services. Many musicians get paid doing that, but I don’t mind doing it for free because to me, it’s a strong intrinsic motivation to serve at my church.

In our journey to identify ways to motivate the folks whom we lead, it’s important to understand the three basic needs of every human — Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness. Understanding the dynamics of the tree components will help us pinpoint the proper approach in attaining sustained improvement through motivation.

1. Competence

This component relates to human’s desire to learn and develop mastery. We are naturally curious beings. Presentations, videos, and articles that are novelty usually get the most traction and engagement from its audience. If it’s clear to the audience that they’ll easily learn something new, they would go for it!

Motivate your staff by making it challenging for them. Not too challenging to discourage them, and not too easy to bore them. Allow them to hit that phase where they’re learning at the right tension of their stretched skills and capabilities. Make sure that the skill you’d like them to learn is worthwhile. Not just to give them some busy work.

2. Autonomy

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.”

- William Ernest Henley (Invictus)

Just like the theme of William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus, people want the sense that they’re in control. They wouldn’t have their jobs if they’re incapable of paving their own path. Allow some legroom for them to navigate the journey themselves. Be clear with your expectations and be clear that they have everything they need to be successful. It’s okay if you don’t totally disengage with your employee. A former executive in our company once said, “Inspect what you expect.” It’s okay to see how things are doing. It’s probably best to catch anything that is totally off-base early so that proper adjustments can be made sooner. You can do this in two ways: first, make it an expectation for your employee to have a weekly or bi-weekly check-in with you. It provides them wiggle room in between check-in sessions, but it still shows them that you care about the forward progress of their project. Second, increase your own tolerance to what’s “off-base.” Allow some mishaps for them to learn from. Maybe, up to the point of making a mistake that they cannot undo.

3. Relatedness

“People need to have a sense of belonging and connectedness with others; each of us need(s) other people to some degree.” — D&R (2008)

You can realize this third need to the rise of social networks and various digital clubs or groups online. Being connected to others is a key component of being human. Even the most introverted individuals need connection. Engagement has been a huge word used in major corporations. It’s an indicator on how successful a company is in satisfying the needs of their employees. To me, relatedness can be equated to engagement. Folks who don’t feel like they’re in an environment that accepts them, tend to not care about what the environment is all about. High employee engagement (relatedness) always equates to high performance which is also realized by the customers of your company. To me, a company’s culture is not passed on using Powerpoint presentations. Culture is passed on by 1-to-1 interaction from the individuals within your organization. Without relatedness, your culture is pretty much dead. Culture is not meant to be held inside a glass case, in display inside your board room. Culture is a like a ball that you pass around your organization. The ball can’t be passed around without relatedness.

Motivating is no joke. The ways to motivate differs from person to person. Each individual has a certain degree of demand of the three basic needs of humans. If you’re a leader with multiple direct reports, that means you have that much many unique individuals to motivate. Understanding these components and how they play a role in your team are the first steps to motivating successfully.

Please share in the comments ways you’ve motivated your teams, high-performers, and under-performers.

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20-Year Financial Services Veteran. Leader and Contributor in IT, Marketing/Advertising, PR, Lending, and Customer Service. Coach. Author. Speaker.