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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jun 12, 2020


The objective of leadership is aligned motivation. When we inspire people from the outside in we build a team that contributes because they want to, rather than because they have to.



Hello and welcome to episode 81 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at inspiring others from the outside in.

The objective of leadership is aligned motivation. As leaders we want a group of people who aren’t just motivated, but are motivated towards the same vision and objectives. There’s no point in having a group of motivated people who are headed in different directions. It’s not much better to have a group of people who know exactly where they are headed, but lack the motivation and drive to get there. As leaders we need to align the motivation of our people.

But how do we achieve this? Do we just need to hire people who are already on board with where we are headed as an organisation? And then what happens when the direction changes? How do we move people towards a new vision and direction? That’s where understanding human motivation can be really helpful.

I’ve referred to the work of Deci and Ryan before. It’s fair to say that they have done more to build our modern understanding of motivation than any other researchers. Deci and Ryan suggest that we often think about motivation as a single thing - that motivation varies just in amount. As a result we then try to work out how to make a person more motivated to do something we want, or less motivated to do something we don’t want. Their work demonstrates that it’s more helpful and accurate to think about types of motivation.

The first distinction they make is between autonomous and controlled motivation. With autonomous motivation I’m doing something with a sense of willingness, volition and choice. I’m undertaking the action or completing the work because I enjoy doing it, and I find it interesting and personally valuable. It’s likely the work aligns with my values and interests. With autonomous motivation I do it because I want to.

With controlled motivation I’m doing something to gain a reward or to avoid punishment. I’m completing the work because I feel pressured, demanded or obliged. With controlled motivation I do it because I have to (or at least I feel like I have to).

Not surprisingly, Deci and Ryan found that autonomous motivation is much better for performance, creativity, problem solving, well-being and engagement. Having freedom and autonomy is a basic human need. We’re much better off as human beings when we have autonomy and freedom.

When we think about autonomous motivation, we typically think about it in terms of intrinsic motivation - that it’s something inside of us. Here we are doing the activity or work because we personally find it interesting and enjoyable, and not just because someone told us to do it. So it’s easy to think of intrinsic motivation as ‘good’. People then contrast that with extrinsic motivation, where we are doing an activity in order to get something else. That ‘something else’ might be a financial outcome, the praise and approval of others, or a good grade. Therefore many people lump all types of extrinsic motivation into the ‘bad’ category.

However, Deci and Ryan found that people could internalise extrinsic motivation in a way where they own it as their own. Over time a person could come to understand the inherent value of the activity and integrate it into who they are. The extrinsic element could be an idea or a concept such as a team purpose. If I come to identify with that purpose, I can eventually own the purpose as my own. At that point I have become autonomously motivated. I’ve taken the extrinsic idea and made it an intrinsic purpose. The leader who has helped me to do that has aligned my motivation. At that point I’m not doing it because you told me to do it, rather I’m doing it because I want to do it.

It’s perhaps a subtle difference, but our job as leaders isn’t to motivate people, but rather to inspire them. When we inspire someone we are sparking their motivation towards a particular direction. That’s different to thinking we can somehow impart motivation onto others, or force them to be motivated. This change in mindset helps us to understand that aligned motivation is about inspiring people. As Deci puts it, it’s not about focusing on how we can motivate others, but rather how we can set up the conditions where people can motivate themselves.

So how do we go about inspiring people from the outside in?

  1. Understand what motivates our people. We take the time to uncover what connects people to the work, and what motivates them outside of work. We need to understand their perspective and interests. That takes time - there aren’t any short cuts.
  2. Communicate a compelling vision. We take our plans and shape them into a vision that is clear, concise and memorable. It’s an influencing exercise. We need to approach it the same way we would try to sell someone a new product or service. It’s an upfront investment that will pay dividends later.
  3. Align individuals to the vision. We work with each individual to help explain the vision and why it matters in a way that is aligned with their interests. We allow our people to make the choice to engage.
  4. Define roles in the context of the vision. We take the time to ensure all the work we undertake links back to the vision.

This helps to explain why the ‘me too’ and ‘black lives matter’ movements have been so successful in engaging a broader group of people where other approaches have had limited success. By way of illustration, both movements have allowed me as a white male to see my role in being part of the solution. So even though I haven’t been on the receiving end of sexism, exploitation, racism or abuse in any significant way, I have been able to align my motivation with those who have. The countless leaders in both movements haven’t motivated me, rather they have set out the conditions that allow me to understand their perspective and how that aligns with my own, and then demonstrated how I can support and help. That’s a very different approach to telling me I have to change, even though clearly I have unwittingly benefited from being on the better end of the equation for years. Rather the leaders have inspired me by drawing out my personal values of fairness and equality, and by encouraging me to take action. And that’s what great leadership looks like.

When we inspire people from the outside in we align their motivation, building a team that contributes because they want to, rather than because they have to. Great leaders take the time to listen and understand first.

I hope you found that episode helpful. In the show notes I’ve included links to a couple of videos with Edward Deci explaining Self-Determination Theory in more detail.