Motivation, Engagement and Commitment
Does your culture support or stifle innovation, agility, and adaptiveness..?
“The troubling truth is that rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it's a coin that doesn't buy very much”. - Alfie Kohn 1
Why do people do what they do?
Why do you do what you do?
According to classical economic theory, it’s “all about the Benjamins”.
In his book The Living Company, my former SoL (UK) colleague Arie de Geus describes how he first saw, as a student in the 1950’s, the gulf between organisational reality and the theories of economists seeking academic credibility by “copying the approaches of hard sciences such as physics”:
“When economists talked about human behaviour as part of their theories, they postulated a mythical creature, homo economicus: a perfectly rational person who always operated from self-interest, with clearly defined reasons for every action and decision. Economic theory could thus encompass sophisticated formulas to describe complex, large-scale, aggregated activities, which could then be translated into ‘managerial science’.
But the formulas said very little about the actual behaviour of homo sapiens — which is immeasurable, unpredictable, unfathomable and deeply ambiguous. Even a 19-year-old student like me could tell, from my part time job at a Shell refinery, that, whereas the management curriculum had no place for human beings, the workplace was full of them.” 2
A few years after Arie’s epiphany, Douglas McGregor published The Human Side of Enterprise, pointing out that employees do not need to be bullied and bribed to fulfil their duties (“Theory X”) but that they have the capacity to be intrinsically motivated in their work, seek responsibility, and be creative in solving business problems (“Theory Y”). 3
In the late 1970’s, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci investigated the conditions under which people operate in line with Theory Y, as opposed to Theory X, laying the foundations for Self Determination Theory (SDT) — which has since developed deeply powerful insights into human motivation, engagement, and commitment.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) described 40 years of SDT “toppling the dominant belief that the best way to get human beings to perform tasks is to reinforce their behaviour with rewards”. 4
Ryan told the APA:
“We're interested in what we would call high-quality motivation, when people can be wholeheartedly engaged in something and really can have both their best experience and their best performance.
We've always been interested in factors that facilitate or undermine that motivation, and in investigating that, we came on the idea that there are some really basic psychological needs that everybody has, whether they're in the classroom, workplace, or sports field, that help them thrive and have their highest quality motivation.
Those basic psychological needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
That's the theory in a nutshell.”
Ryan’s colleague Deci added:
“We thought it was important to differentiate types of motivation rather than the amount.
The critical distinction for us is autonomous versus controlled motivation.”
Ryan and Deci’s distinction between “autonomous” and “controlled” motivation echoes concerns voiced by William Kahn, founding father of engagement. 5
Also interviewed in 2017, Kahn describes how his original ideas and intentions for personal engagement were corrupted by the employee engagement bandwagon:
“I very deliberately focused on “personal” engagement – the harnessing of the person in the context of role performances. This refers to the thoughts, feelings, and energies of who people are when they are at their best selves.
The focus, frankly, is on whether people can express their selves in the context of their work roles, which enables them to grow and evolve even as they are performing well.
The shift in the industry to “employee” engagement is, in many ways, a reversal of that idea, and of my intention.
The industry focus is on how leaders can get people to work harder and with more energy on behalf of their organizations, with less focus on whether people are bringing their best, cherished selves into that work.
I think that the power of the ideas about personal engagement gets lost in that reimagined focus.” 6
When organisations fail to create conditions conducive to personal engagement by cultivating autonomy, competence and relatedness, they can all too easily become tempted to revert to the legacy economic practice of bribing people with extrinsic incentives.
Unfortunately, as Bruno Frey’s 1997 Crowding Theory points out, extrinsic incentives such as monetary rewards undermine intrinsic motivation.
This “crowding out” reliably occurs when: 7
Rewards are offered in the context of pre-existing intrinsic motivation e.g. in pro-social settings or when working on inherently interesting tasks
Rewards are known in advance and expected
Rewards are tangible.
Alfie Kohn identified the same problem in his 1993 book Punished by Rewards:
“The troubling truth is that rewards and punishments are not opposites at all; they are two sides of the same coin. And it's a coin that doesn't buy very much”. 8
It’s easy to understand that punishing people is likely to undermine any intrinsic motivation they may have had for a task.
But the same undermining of intrinsic motivation occurs when people are “incentivised” by rewards:
“Few readers will be shocked by the news that extrinsic motivators are a poor substitute for genuine interest in what one is doing.
What is likely to be far more surprising and disturbing is the further point that rewards, like punishments, actually undermine the intrinsic motivation that promotes optimal performance”. 9
This is because:
“The use of rewards drains the joy out of much of what we do, and this result can fairly be described as punitive whether or not people are up in arms over the fact”. 10
Ryan, Deci, Kahn, Frey, and Kohn all highlight the crucial distinction between autonomous, intrinsically motivated commitment and controlled, extrinsically motivated compliance.
The difference is pivotal in organisational learning, the presence or absence of which is indicated by the following commonly encountered modes of motivation:
Passionately engaged, has a burning desire to create value, and will move heaven and earth to make it happen in a spirit of “Watch out world — here I come..!”
Wants the intended outcome and feels a shared responsibility for making it happen. Often looks like commitment but lacks its self-determined “fire in the belly”.
Sees the intended outcome as worthwhile and will do what's expected of them. "It's reasonable to ask this of me, so yes, of course I'll do it".
Doesn't really want to do what's expected of them but can't see how to avoid it and keep their job. Often makes it known that they're not on board.
Neither for nor against the intended outcome. No interest, no energy, no enthusiasm, no engagement. “Is it time to go home yet?”.
Doesn't agree with the intended outcome and explicitly refuses to do what's asked of them: “I won't do it. You can't make me”.
Doesn't agree with the intended outcome and will actively seek to overtly or covertly undermine it with the attitude: “OK if that's what you want, that's exactly what I'll do. Let's see where that gets you.”
Notice how attitudes and behaviours change as motivation shifts from intrinsic and autonomous at the top of the list to increasing extrinsic control at the bottom.
Future-fit cultures of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness crucially depend on unlocking widespread commitment by creating conditions where sense making, decision making & action taking become ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded and widely distributed throughout the organisation.
In such future-fit cultures:
Autonomy is experienced when people feel appropriately and adequately involved in sense making and decision making — so that action taking makes sense to them.
Competence is experienced when people feel effective in action taking, contributing to sense making and decision making, and co-creating meaningful value with others, especially when that value is experienced as something more than just aggregating their individual contributions.
Relatedness is pivotal because effective sense making inevitably involves combining our individual perspectives with the diverse perspectives of others in ways that enrich understanding, whilst building mutual respect and camaraderie.
The Bottom Line
Does your organisation have a future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness that cultivates autonomy, competence, and relatedness — thereby fostering genuine commitment?
If not, why not?
And what are you doing about it?
“Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise and Other Bribes.” by Alfie Kohn on Goodreads (p 50).
The Human Side of Enterprise (1960) McGraw-Hill.
Kahn coined the term “engagement” in his seminal paper in the Academy of Management Journal: “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” (1990).
The 2017 Q&A where William Kahn describes how his original ideas got reversed by the “employee engagement” industry, achieving the exact opposite of what he intended.
See Bruno Frey’s 1997 Motivation Crowding Theory - Debate and Meta-analyses.
Ibid. (Kohn p50).
Ibid. (Kohn - p69).
Ibid. (Kohn - p315).