Facets of Motivation

Because I live in a country where decisions are made at a family, rather than an individual level, I was curious about how one would stay motivated if achieving a goal was not simply an individual endeavor, but was mediated by family members. Bear with me, I will bring this back to HR in a moment, but first, I’d like to share a conversation I had with one of my students at the women’s college where I teach.

I asked my student how she stays motivated when she wants to do something and her family disagrees.

Without hesitating, she described the steps she takes when her parents tell her she cannot pursue a goal. First of all, she envisions her goal and imagines what it will be like when she achieves it.  This surprised me, because I thought a ‘no’ was a ‘no’, so I wondered why she would be focusing on achieving her goal when her parents had vetoed it.

Secondly, she talks to her friends and other family members and gains support for her idea.

Thirdly, she figures out what her parents object to, that is, she reflects on what is it they are concerned about.  In the example the student shared, her parents disagreed with her plan to apply for a scholarship that would see her spending ten days in New York City.

Her fourth step is to research ways to allay her parents’ concerns and come up with solutions she thinks might work.  She then shares these ideas with her parents.   If they raise other concerns, she addresses these as well and, when she can, she shares benefits to her goal that her parents may not have known about.  In this case, if the student was granted the scholarship, it would enable her to enter the workforce at a higher level, something her parents may not have thought of, but would be pleased with.

She doesn’t give up; she keeps focused until she has convinced her parents.

I asked how she developed this strategy and she said that as a young child she began working out ways to bring her parents onside.  Her older sister took ‘no’ for the final answer and didn’t pursue her dreams, but this student says she is intrinsically motivated so she would go ahead and work out how to alleviate her parents’ concerns.  Now she coaches her older sister.

Tying this back to the question of how to motivate employees, it would seem that intrinsic motivation is stronger in some people than in others.  Some people will need external motivation and others won’t.  So yes, it is up to leaders to motivate those who need it.  Those who are intrinsically motivated, as my student pointed out, will find ways to achieve their goals, leaders need only provide support, encouragement, or in some cases permission, and then step aside.

Reflecting on my student’s example I realized that this ties back into the workplace where it would be useful to provide training for employees in how to achieve their goals, not the ones that are set for them, but the ones they identify on their own.  Quite often employees come up with ideas that would enhance their organization’s performance, but they don’t know how to introduce these ideas or build support for them.  My student’s technique strikes me as a good starting point for helping employees develop strategies to achieve their goals by asking for assistance from others.

As managers or leaders, it would seem that it is important to encourage these employees by creating an environment that is relatively free from constraints where new and creative practices can be developed – the premise of ‘skunkworks’.

I have noticed that employees will often work on a project they are interested in with great dedication and little thought of rewards, perhaps as a form of self-actualization.  It seems that many employees are interested in ‘making a difference’ in their organizations especially when they define the terms.

On the other hand, it is important to remember that work is but one facet of a person’s life and their motivation will fluctuate depending on where their focus is at the moment.  We can expect interruptions in our employees’ and colleagues’ motivation, but these won’t last.

Some employees see work is a safe haven of predictability when their life is in chaos, it is a place where they have control and a sense of stability.  These employees will be motivated to maintain routines and will work well within a structured framework. They won’t be as interested in creating or participating in change initiatives but they can be counted on to put the systems in place to normalize the change once it has been adopted – once again creating a sense of stability.

Listening to our employees and colleagues can give us answers more quickly and efficiently than speculation coupled with trial and error.

I didn’t anticipate the answer my student gave me and I am not convinced that another student would share her approach, but I am sure that every student has a strategy.  Indeed, when I asked my young granddaughter how she stays motivated when she has difficulty with math, she explained that rewards are very helpful.  Time to practice, praise and recognition keep her going. Staying with a concept until she understands it completely is important, she doesn’t like to move on to new processes before she has mastered the current one.  Wise words indeed!

As always, I am amazed at both the complexity and the simplicity of the responses and the ways to ensure colleagues and employees are motivated. Time for some introspection!


Strong, P. (2006). Honors as Skunkworks. Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council. Vol. 6, 2.

Cundall, M.  (2010). Service learning and skunkworks in a senior honors colloquium.  Honors in Practice. Vol. 6

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