Tag Archives: SDT

Remaining motivated at work

The typical picture that comes to mind when thinking about motivation at work is dangling carrots and looming sticks. But does that really work? Intuitively we know that carrots and sticks is not the best route to either happiness or productivity. In this lesson we will look at other ways of keeping oneself motivated and fulfilled at work.

English: Autonomy Mastery Purpose vs. Carrot a...

English: Autonomy Mastery Purpose vs. Carrot and Stick (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Motivators vs. Hygiene factors: Most of us believe that salary is the primary reason we are motivated to work. Wrong! Salary is a hygiene factor as per Herzberg, and we will leave the job or become very dissatisfied if we are not adequately compensated; however salary by itself will not motivate us to put our best efforts or to be happy at what we do. Herzberg distinguishes between Hygiene factors that are a minimal requirement for work like salary and satisfactory company policies and administration, and Motivators or factors like opportunity for advancement, recognition and achievement, that pulls one towards the work and lead to job satisfaction.
  2. Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation: According to a prominent theory of motivation, known as self-determination theory, people may engage in a task whether due to extrinsic reasons like gaining money, social approval, higher status etc or they may indulge in an activity because they find the activity self-motivating or internally driven. In the latter case of being intrinsically driven, it’s more likely that one will enjoy one’s work. For example, children who inherently love and enjoy drawing with crayons, stop enjoying/drawing with crayons if their earlier drawings are made contingent or rewarded with money. Basically, if you offer monetary incentives for tasks that are inherently satisfying you are creating extrinsic motivators which may undermine the intrinsic motivation.
  3. Autonomy: There are some basic needs that have been identified by Deci and Ryan as necessary for intrinsic motivation. One of them is feelings of autonomy or experiencing some choice and control over your work. Companies can easily allow employees some choice over what to work on, where to work from (work from home policies) and whom to work with to create feelings of autonomy. Maybe your company is not Google /Zappos encouraging 20 percent of your time to be spent on your self chosen projects, but there would be some autonomy you can exercise.
  4. Mastery:  Another basic human need is the need to be competent and to achieve results/ some progress on a daily basis. Companies can provide an environment where employees are provided stretch assignments to grow their capabilities and to develop and grow. And we should be willing to step out of our comfort zone and take on new assignments that lead to feelings of competence.
  5. Relatedness:   A third basic human need is relatedness or feeling connected at the workplace. Companies can encourage more formal as well as informal bonding within teams and we need to make best use of such opportunities to create lasting relationships at work that help us feel a sense of community.
  6. Purpose: We have already talked at length about this basic human need of finding cohesion and meaning in all that you do. It’s important to look at your work in the bigger context and have a clear big picture view of the impact you are making. Also important is to align your work values with your life values and find a sense of work-life integration.

Addressing the above basic needs and ensuring you are intrinsically driven will make it more likely that you are both happier and more productive and engaged in what you do. In the next lesson we will look at how cultivating a positive and optimistic mindset helps you at work.

For developing non-cognitive skills of Employees, focus on their Managers!

A recent article by Paul Tough, focuses on how one can increase the non-cognitive skills of students. He shows, how, the evidence increasingly points, that we cannot ‘teach’ these skills, but by creating the right environmental conditions and via real-world interactions, these somehow develop.

These non-cognitive skills are skills like grit, resilience, self-control and perseverance; and these have been shown to have differential and significant impact, over and above cognitive factors, on academic performance and outcomes like the CGPA.

The article starts with documenting the well-known finding that (chronic) stress in early childhood is associated with worse outcomes later in life. It then goes on to document another finding, that irrespective of whether the early childhood is stressful (barring aside extreme adversity) or not, if the child-parent interaction is full of warmth and supportive and consistent, then it leads to development of  positive non-cognitive skills like attention and concentration.

For children who grow up without significant experiences of adversity, the skill-development process leading up to kindergarten generally works the way it’s supposed to: Calm, consistent, responsive interactions in infancy with parents and other caregivers create neural connections that lay the foundation for a healthy array of attention and concentration skills. Just as early stress sends signals to the nervous system to maintain constant vigilance and prepare for a lifetime of trouble, early warmth and responsiveness send the opposite signals: You’re safe; life is going to be fine. Let down your guard; the people around you will protect you and provide for you. Be curious about the world; it’s full of fascinating surprises. These messages trigger adaptations in children’s brains that allow them to slow down and consider problems and decisions more carefully, to focus their attention for longer periods, and to more willingly trade immediate gratification for promises of long-term benefits.

Now, as per one conceptualization, its easy to draw a parallel between a child-parent relation and a employee-manager relation; many of us look at our bosses as parental authority figures and look towards them for direction and guidance. If we extend the analogy, its easy to see why the supportive, warm, caring and consistent behavior of managers towards their employee may be an important variable that results in the employees exhibiting behaviors that utilizes and is focused around using non-cognitive skills.

Also important is the emotional intelligence of the manager- how self-aware the manager is and how capable of self-regulation he or she is. The analogy with parent-child emotional interaction and modelling is presented below:

A second crucial role that parents play early on is as external regulators of their children’s stress. When parents behave harshly or unpredictably—especially at moments when their children are upset—the children are less likely over time to develop the ability to manage strong emotions and respond effectively to stressful situations. By contrast, when a child’s parents respond to her jangled emotions in a sensitive and measured way, she is more likely to learn that she herself has the capacity to cope with her feelings, even intense and unpleasant ones.

So, if one wants to have employees that can focus, self-regulate, do not cut corners in service of short term goals and are creative/ innovative, then along with some behavioral raining in these aspects, a fruitful avenue would be focusing on the EI and attitudes of their managers so that they act in right way towards their employees, and create the right conditions for development and display of non-cognitive skills.

The article then goes on to discuss how neither punishments nor incentives work to decrease the behavior problems or to increase the academic outcomes. Translated to the workplace, carrots and sticks don’t work, neither for controlling dis-engagement nor for increasing performance. One striking indictment of incentives follows:

And yet in almost every case, Fryer’s incentive programs have had no effect. From 2007 to 2009, Fryer distributed a total of $9.4 million in cash incentives to 27,000 students, to promote book reading in Dallas, to raise test scores in New York, and to improve course grades in Chicago —all with no effect. “The impact of financial incentives on student achievement,” Fryer reported, “is statistically 0 in each city.” In the 2010–11 school year, he gave cash incentives to fifth-grade students in 25 low-performing public schools in Houston, and to their parents and teachers, with the intent of increasing the time they spent on math homework and improving their scores on standardized math tests. The students performed the tasks necessary to get paid, but their average math scores at the end of eight months hadn’t changed at all. When Fryer looked at their reading scores, he found that they actually went down.

What does work instead, is creating the conditions for tapping into intrinsic motivation: and one way to do so is by providing employees/ students a sense of autonomy, mastery experiences and a sense of belonging/ relatedness. This is based in the rich literature around self-determination theory by Deci and Ryan.

But how does this relate to the non-cognitive abilities? In educational settings, Jackson, an economist, tried to measure the non-cognitive ability of students and also correlate to teacher’s effectiveness and came up with striking insights.

Jackson had access to students’ scores on the statewide standardized test, and he used that as a rough measure of their cognitive ability. This is the number that education officials generally look at when trying to assess teachers’ impact. But then Jackson did something new. He created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability, using just four pieces of existing administrative data: attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression, and overall GPA. Jackson’s new index measured, in a fairly crude way, how engaged students were in school—whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved, and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this simple noncognitive proxy was, remarkably, a better predictor than students’ test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests.

An analogy to workplace would be productivity as the cognitive skills; and absenteeism, layoffs, on-time promotions and performance ratings as a proxy measure for non-cognitive abilities. And what did he find?

Jackson’s proxy measure allowed him to do some intriguing analysis of teachers’ effectiveness. He subjected every ninth-grade English and algebra teacher in North Carolina to what economists call a value-added assessment. First he calculated whether and how being a student in a particular teacher’s class affected that student’s standardized-test score. Then, separately, he calculated the effect that teachers had on their students’ noncognitive proxy measure: on their attendance, suspensions, timely progression from one grade to the next, and overall GPA.

Jackson found that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized-test scores year after year. These are the teachers, in every teacher-evaluation system in the country, who are the most valued and most rewarded. But he also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his noncognitive measure. If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade. And your overall GPA went up—not just your grades in that particular teacher’s class, but your grades in your other classes, too.

Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much; in every school, it seemed, there were certain teachers who were especially good at developing cognitive skills in their students and other teachers who excelled at developing noncognitive skills. But the teachers in the second cohort were not being rewarded for their success with their students—indeed, it seemed likely that no one but Jackson even realized that they were successful. And yet those teachers, according to Jackson’s calculations, were doing more to get their students to college and raise their future wages than were the much-celebrated teachers who boosted students’ test scores.

Now this is huge! It correlates with the parallel  claim I have been making that most of the managers are basically either task-oriented or people-oriented.  Those who are task oriented, are like the teachers who can increase the cognitive ability of students, and are able to drive productivity in their teams; the other set of managers, who are more people-oriented, are like teachers that create the conditions that lead to more non-cognitive abilities in their students, and are able to truly engage employees and bring out their best.

And this they do by creating the right conditions:

The environment those teachers created in the classroom, and the messages that environment conveyed, motivated students to start making better decisions—to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student’s school day. And those decisions improved their lives in meaningful ways. Did the students learn new skills that enabled them to behave differently? Maybe. Or maybe what we are choosing to call “skills” in this case are really just new ways of thinking about the world or about themselves—a new set of attitudes or beliefs that somehow unleash a new way of behaving.

And what are these new set of attitudes or beliefs:

Farrington has distilled this voluminous mind-set research into four key beliefs that, when embraced by students, seem to contribute most significantly to their tendency to persevere in the classroom:

1. I belong in this academic community.

2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.

3. I can succeed at this.

4. This work has value for me.

If students hold these beliefs in mind as they are sitting in math class, Farrington concludes, they are more likely to persevere through the challenges and failures they encounter there. And if they don’t, they are more likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.

The four factors are related to belongingness (where managers can play a big role), mastery experiences and growth opportunities, for creating self-efficacy and feelings of competence(again under manager’s control); and ensuring the work is purposeful and not meaningless (where again managers can play a big role).

Its about time, managers lived up-to their responsibilities, and organizations reward the people-oriented managers too, who are creating the conditions for their employees to grow and flourish. The non-cognitive skills of employees can be developed but via the managers and hence its important to create the right culture where people oriented managers are also rewarded and recognized.

Happiness and good relationships at work

I came across this study by Boston Consulting Group (BCG) today, courtesy a post by Dr. Nico Rose; and have been thinking about the primary finding highlighted by Nico that relationships matter for your happiness – even in the workplace.


Happiness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, I have been  long time fan of Herzberg‘s two factor-theory of workplace motivation and happiness, where he makes a difference between motivators or those factors that drive job satisfaction and Hygiene factors or those that drive dissatisfaction. As per Herzberg, dissatisfaction and satisfaction are different constructs with different underlying antecedents and are not the converse of each other.

Now, if one equates job satisfaction with positive emotions and job dissatisfaction with negative emotions, one would conclude that positive emotions and negative emotions too should be different constructs and not the opposite of each other; and that is exactly what we now from research in psychology. It is well established now that mental health and mental illness are different constructs and so are positive emotions and negative emotions. Reducing the negative emotions does not guarantee that you will be happy; to become happier you have to resort to different tactics than those used to reduce suffering.

Returning to Herzberg’s theory,the Wikipedia page list some good evidence in support of that:

That said, a study by the Gallup Organization, as detailed in the book First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, appears to provide strong support for Herzberg’s division of satisfaction and dissatisfaction onto two separate scales. In this book, the authors discuss how the study identified twelve questions that provide a framework for determining high-performing individuals and organizations. These twelve questions align squarely with Herzberg’s motivation factors, while hygiene factors were determined to have little effect on motivating high performance.

So we do have some evidence for the validity of two factor construct. Now, Herzberg’s theory mentions the following as motivators and hygiene factors :

Two-factor theory distinguishes between:

  • Motivators (e.g. challenging work, recognition for one’s achievement, responsibility, opportunity to do something meaningful, involvement in decision making, sense of importance to an organization) that give positive satisfaction, arising from intrinsic conditions of the job itself, such as recognition, achievement, or personal growth,  and

  • Hygiene factors (e.g. status, job security, salary, fringe benefits, work conditions, good pay, paid insurance, vacations) that do not give positive satisfaction or lead to higher motivation, though dissatisfaction results from their absence. The term “hygiene” is used in the sense that these are maintenance factors. These are extrinsic to the work itself, and include aspects such as company policies, supervisory practices, or wages/salary. Herzberg often referred to hygiene factors as “KITA” factors, which is an acronym for “kick in the ass”, the process of providing incentives or threat of punishment to make someone do something.


Its interesting to note that Herzberg puts relationships with peers, colleagues and subordinates under hygiene factor or those that can lead to dissatisfaction; however in doing so I think Herzberg was placing too strong an emphasis on the KITA factor of supervisors and colleagues (who hasn’t faced an a**hole boss or colleague or even a subordinate). What he ignored was that while other people are hell, so are they heaven.

The same supervisor that can be an a**hole, can also be an angelic mentor ensuring your growth and development.  And that is exactly what  the BCG have found in their survey of over 200,000 people from all over the world.  To quote a verbatim response from an example respondent:

As for relationships with superiors, it’s “important to me because I would like to learn and grow” and having the right super­visor “can help facilitate that,” she says.

The discourse since the days of Herzberg has clearly moved towards viewing people primarily as hell, to viewing them as having positive potential. The top factors for happiness in the BCG survey are all related to relationships. (money related factors appear at the eighth rank ).


Also important to note that Herzberg distinguished between motivators as being related to intrinsic factors or intrinsic motivation, while Hygiene factors as more extrinsic or environmentally controlled. It is easy to put relationships in extrinsic factors, but that ignores research by Deci and Ryan on self-determination that puts Relatedness as a basic intrinsic human need at par with Autonomy and Mastery.

I think its time to disentangle the effects of good and bad relationships in the workplace, and while conducting research or surveys, its imperative that we separate questions about engagement / satisfaction from questions about dis-engagement/ dissatisfaction; and then we will have a clearer picture of what factors are important for workplace happiness and what are necessary to prevent workplace misery.

Relationships, intriguingly, may figure prominently in both lists. So the bottom line is that other people matter – for good or for worse!