Although everyone lacks motivation at one time or another, an occasional motivation lapse is the most anyone is generally willing to confess to his or her peers. Unfortunately, that is not reality. If honest about it, people regularly fail to accomplish all that they are capable of, if only they had enough motivation. Most people do not hold themselves accountable for their motivational shortcomings. Acknowledging and holding oneself accountable for motivational shortcomings is a necessary step to achieving one’s highest potential in all aspects of life. After one acknowledges his or her shortcomings, he or she can look at ways of facilitating his or her own motivation, which can improve happiness and performance. An agile development approach can help not only be efficient with business procedures, but also enhance motivation.

(As an aside, thank you for choosing to visit my first blog post. It is a tad lengthy, but I am a recovering Masters degree student. I have read a few first blog posts before, some good and some bad. I hope this is the former. I’m sure you are capable of deciding which category this fits into if you decide to finish reading. I look forward to hearing your feedback.)

Reality and Acceptance
Here is the truth of it; there are numerous daily tasks that every person fails to complete. These tasks will range in category and complexity from person to person. For example, Fred may be highly motivated at work and with family, but likely he is not also highly motivated to do home repairs and cleaning. Like Fred, every person will be strong in some areas, but also have motivational weaknesses in others.

Being motivated goes beyond simply marking a task as complete, there is a spectrum of quality. Often when one does manage to complete a task that he or she is not highly motivated to complete, he or she is satisfied with a lower quality level than he or she would be for something he or she was more motivated to complete. For example, Wilma is a terrific mechanic, but she is unhappy with her boss at work. As a result, her motivation is low. She gets the job done at a mediocre quality and she never has any creative solutions. In the end, she does her job and the boss looks good because the jobs get done. But both Wilma and her boss are missing out on her potential, which never gets realized or accounted for in the boss’s evaluation.

Failures to complete tasks, or to complete them well, are often attributed to being too busy, too tired, or putting off these tasks until they are forgotten. Yet, there are some questions to ask one’s self. Am I really too busy to put in an extra hour at work to get ahead? Am I honestly too tired to volunteer some time? Did I truthfully forget about taking out the trash (as a result of bad memory) or did I delay doing it long enough to ‘forget’ because I just did not want to do it? It needs to be asked, if it were my favourite thing, would I still have those excuses, would I still be too busy, too tired, or have forgotten? If Fred and Wilma had to go to the store to buy themselves new ‘favourite things” instead of taking out the trash, would they still have been distracted enough to forget? No, probably not. Instead, they would remember the task because they were motivated to do so. The problem is motivation not memory.

Many deny motivational failure and attribute it to something else. This creates motivational debt, which is perpetuated by not addressing it directly. Because society suffers from mass dilution and denial in explaining motivational failure, it becomes more shameful to admit lack of motivation than lack of memory or energy. As with any problem, sweeping it under the rug just gives it room to grow or, in the case of motivation, diminish.

There is hope for a solution; researchers have realized the lack of motivation most people face and attempted to provide some answers. One explanation is that our collective lack of motivation comes from the disassociation from a historic, predominantly biological, set of primary motivators: physical danger, hunger, and procreation to name a few. People have no need of extra motivation to fight or run from danger, or to eat when hungry, or to find other people attractive. Having said that, today, those are not daily concerns for most people. So the question many want to have answered is “how does one improve motivation for today’s world”?

Incentives (Extrinsic Motivation)
One possible solution for a secondary means of motivation is the use of incentives. That is to reward good habits or punish bad habits. Most people have seen this process work. This happens everywhere; perhaps most commonly, people use incentives to train pets or children to behave. However, it has been shown numerous times that incentives work in a very limited fashion [1]. Incentives only work for simple, often physical, tasks. So if Fred and Wilma’s motivational problem is with taking out the trash, an incentive could help.

However, most people face motivational challenges that are beyond simple tasks, for example, in the workplace they are asked to think intelligently and creatively. Unfortunately, another common use of incentives is by employers. These employers have wrongly extrapolated from experience with motivation for simple tasks, like taking out the trash, to expect the same result with improving products or performance. As such, employers anticipate that awarding large cash bonuses will result in improved work when performing more complex tasks. Unexpectedly to these employers, when given incentives on tasks that required even rudimentary cognitive skill, performance is actually worse than no incentive [1]. This is true when offering either positive [1] or negative [2] incentives.

Intrinsic Motivation
Thus, as most people’s lives involve cognitive tasks, a tertiary source of motivation is needed. So, what moves people? An incentive seems to get people “up off the couch”, that is to “do something” rather than “nothing”, but it does not seem to continue to motivate beyond that nor is it applicable to even rudimentary cognitive tasks. Well, it turns out that, as one might have expected, people are more than slaves to extrinsic incentives and are largely driven by intrinsic motivation.

A prevalent theory based on fostering intrinsic motivation is the Self-Determination Theory developed by Deci and Ryan [3]. Intrinsic motivation relies on fostering existing internal sources of motivation, rather than driving motivation externally.  They propose three psychological needs that, when satisfied, lead to developing intrinsic motivation. They are as follows: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. For the purposes of this article, I want to expand the names of the psychological needs to: autonomy, competence/mastery, and relatedness/purpose. These still fall within the original concepts but add some clarity to what they encompass.

Important to note is that motivation is not simply one has it or one does not. Deci and Ryan outline a continuum from amotivation (no motivation) to intrinsic motivation, with extrinsic motivation in between. However, a detailed discussion on the levels of motivation will be left for another time. For now, it is important to simply note that motivation is not as simple as “not motivated to do” or “motivated to do”.

People’s motivation is sometimes colloquially referred to as their “inner fire”.  This is a meaningful analogy. Giving positive incentives is akin to throwing more wood on a campfire. It will get the fire going a little and will even enhance it briefly, but it fades. Not to mention, on occasion, adding wood snuffs out the fire. On the other hand, facilitating intrinsic motivation is in-line with running an internal combustion engine. It still requires some care, in terms of fuel, oil, and maintenance (autonomy, competence, and relatedness); however, there are behemothian benefits in taking advantage of the inherent framework to maintain an engine that is more powerful and longer lasting.

Autonomy is the need to perceive that one has choice and control of one’s own behaviour. This is perhaps best discussed in terms of how to avoid infringing on autonomy. Anytime one is asked to do something, he or she loses autonomy. An extreme case would be that as soon as one is asked to do something, he or she loses motivation to do it — even (or maybe ‘especially’) if he or she was already going to do it. That may seem crazy, but it is something most people have experienced at one time or another. Now, most of the time people will end up completing the task anyway, although somewhat begrudgingly if he or she has been asked. So, it is important to be mindful of controlling questions and statements that are often made haphazardly, maybe even in an attempt to be helpful.

A famous example of fostering autonomy in business is Google’s twenty per cent policy. Google employees are encouraged to use twenty per cent of their time on ‘whatever they want’. This policy resulted in great initiatives and products for Google, such as: YouTube for Good, Google Reader, Gmail, and Google News (as well as some failed ideas). However, the motivational gain to the company goes beyond the great products produced. Encouraging employees to have control over their work helps the employees to be motivated and produce better work throughout the week.

Encouraging autonomy to produce higher quality work is not easy and in some industries (perhaps your own) the type of freedom Google provided is thought to be un-viable. Well, take a look at the typical ‘call center’ customer service business. This is an industry that has up to fifty per cent annual turnover and ten per cent absenteeism in the US [4]. The experience provided by call centers is usually equally terrible for the customer and the employee. That was until Zappos came around in 1999. They are perhaps the second most well known example of benefiting from employees’ autonomy. They offered employees an extensive seven-week training program and, instead of scripts, the only direction to employees was to “solve the customer’s problem your own way”. The result was customer service ratings that were number one in the US among online retailers. In 2009, Zappos success resulted in the company’s acquisition by Amazon for $1.2 billion. Zappos proved that a motivational supportive approach is more than viable, even in a traditionally terrible environment.

Competence and Mastery
Those examples highlight the importance of providing employees with some control over how to accomplish their jobs. Given that control, what else inspires employees to do the best job they can? In addition to autonomy, people need to have a perception of competence. That is, one has to believe that he or she can get the job done and achieve the desired outcomes. If one does not believe in his or her own competence he or she will struggle to see a positive end-point and he or she will not take ownership of the task, which is essential to becoming intrinsically motivated.

At the other end of the continuum, which begins with competence, is mastery – the highest level of competence. People are inherently motivated to achieve mastery or create something masterful. This is why many people spend their free time with hobbies they are trying to master. One may never be a professional ice hockey player, but he or she can still try to master it in his or her free time. Having growth opportunities that are perceived to lead one towards mastery is an important motivational force.

Relatedness and Purpose
Open source software is also the result of people enjoying the challenge of creating something masterful together. Striving to create something masterful together is sometimes termed making a ‘contribution’ or having a ‘purpose’. Having a shared purpose provides employees with relatedness to one another. Relatedness is the psychological need to authentically connect with others and feel involved socially. Having a shared purpose is the result of relatedness and mastery coming together to create a vision that is shared with one’s peers to accomplish more than one could alone.

Tackling Motivation
One caveat about motivation is that money is still a motivator [7]. People are very astute with regard to fairness in pay. However, if people are paid fairly it diminishes the controlling effect of money. Ideally, one should pay people well enough to take money out of the equation, so people are no longer concerned with supporting themselves or their family. Once money is out of the equation, with the right conditions, the truly wonderful benefits of facilitating intrinsically motivated people will be revealed.

There are a lot of factors that can help or hinder motivation. Awareness and attention to motivational needs is an important first step to improving motivation and, given the right set of circumstances, people can become intrinsically motivated where previously they were not. Alternatively, giving incentives can be controlling and take away intrinsic motivation and result in worse performance by forcing attention to be myopic and narrow (relating to scope and breadth).

One potential solution is an agile development approach, which focuses on small self-organizing teams. This arrangement, if properly followed, allows for everyone on the team to feel in control of his or her own work. Team members are a part of the planning process in developing what work is to be done and then they self-select the tasks they will be responsible for. The teams also share many responsibilities and work together to accomplish goals. This helps prevent team members from feeling overwhelmed or incompetent in certain tasks. Also, working together provides social relatedness within the team. This helps people feel connected to each other and, overall, team members are more connected to the larger purpose of the project and the goals of the company.

Hopefully, this starts a path of understanding that a lack of motivation is real, common, not shameful, and there are means of improving. If one manages other people, consider that most current management practices were developed around the 1850s (the time of Queen Victoria and before Canada was a country) and focused on compliance from workers [7]. The bar can be set higher than compliance, aim for engagement. Allowing people to satisfy psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness will result in higher intrinsic motivation, which leads to higher engagement, better learning, greater creativity, improved happiness, and better performance.

[1] D. ARIELY, U. GNEEZY, G. LOWENSTEIN, and N. MAZAR, Large Stakes and Big Mistakes Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper No. 05-11, July. 2005; NY TIMES, 20 Nov. 08

[2] URI GNEEZY and ALDO RUSTICHINI, A Fine is a Price, Journal of Legal Studies, vol. XXIX (January 2000)

[3] DECI, E. L., and RYAN, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.


[5] GUADAGNOLI M., & LEE T. Challenge point: a framework for conceptualizing the effects of various practice conditions in motor learning. J Motor Behav 2004; 36: 212-24.


[7]  PINK, DANIEL H. (2010). Drive – The Surprising Truth about what motivates us. 2815 of 3967: Canongate Books.