Motivation: A Four Part Series

Part 1 – Motivational Building Blocks

Take a look around your organization and see if you can identify any common approaches to motivation. There are four typical schools of thought on motivation: behavioral, cognitive, psychodynamic and humanist. Let’s run through them and see if you recognize them in practice. 

Behavioral Approach: First we have the behavioral approach. Around the turn of the century, leading into the early 1900’s, we had a bunch of guys that established theories about human behavior. The general idea was that the conditions and constraints of a person’s environment can affect their behavior. You’ve probably heard of foundational thinkers like Pavlov and Skinner, Freud, McGregor and Herzberg. All of them supported this theory in one way or another with seminal works that are still used today.
This included applying rewards & punishment.  Through extensive research and scientific testing an application of rewards and punishment was developed to impact behavior. By changing the conditions and constraints around work being done, you can impact the behavior of those doing the work. The idea was simple, reward the behavior that you want and punish the behavior you don’t want. Sound familiar? Perhaps you have some measures in place at work right now that aim to do just that, reward and punish.
In application this did not always work. Over time, and with great frustration, people started looking for other solutions. The behavioral approach just didn’t seem all inclusive, and it wasn’t. That’s when we turned to the cognitive approach. The thinking was that people are a little more complicated than we originally thought. We are not simply a composite of base behavioral actions. There is something else that impacts our behaviors, and that something else is called a “brain.” 

Cognitive Approach: Cognitive thinking was born. The general idea is that thoughts and ideas can drive decisions and actions. This required a new approach to impact behavior. Now we needed tools to persuade and influence individual thought and perception. This lead to a revolution on the power of the brain with emphasis on things like values, beliefs and attitudes that could be leveraged through things like “vision,” “mission,” or even “goals.” If people didn’t believe in what they were doing, it would be difficult to force them to do it, regardless of the attached reward or punishment. Perhaps you’ve heard of things like affirmations, visualization and rational analysis. They all tie into this thing called, “your mind.” Thoughts lead to beliefs, which influence your actions, which result in ongoing behavior. Change someone’s thoughts, values and belief and you can change their actions. The only problem is that this is a little more complicated in application. Today, theories in cognitive research show up in many facets like educational training and coaching. Being able to teach and coach is not always a pre-requisite to project management or management in general, but it should be. Every manager needs tools to influence the thoughts of their workers.
Why couldn’t people be programmed like machines and set to work?
In time, the cognitive approach started to show its own limitations in application. Again, people seemed more complex than what the behavioral and cognitive research seemed to suggest. Why? What was going on? Why couldn’t people be programmed like machines and set to work? What seemed to be getting in the way is something we call “feelings.” This led to research on “psychodynamics.”

Psychodynamics:  We have extensively documented the “emotional” process that we all go through when we lose a loved one or suffer some sort of personal tragedy. In fact, this emotional process is something we experience in almost any circumstance of change to one extent or another. There is a psychological process that we go through when we experience any change. People cannot turn their emotions on and off like a mechanical switch. There is a complicated process involved that is sensitive to many things. People’s perceptions of reality and their emotional response to life, work and day to day activities are real and need to be treated with respect. In addition, an emotional response and the process of dealing with change, requires time. This is difficult to predict and even more difficult to influence or control.

Humanist Approach: To add another layer of complexity to the discussion, we must consider something called the humanist approach. The humanist approach takes us one step further and recognizes the person holistically. This brings all three subsequent theories together under one umbrella in combination with some key assumptions. Some of those assumptions are things like the idea that people are innately good, want to learn, care about their work and are interested in growth and development and an environment that allows autonomous behavior. These beliefs have been widely adopted by human resource departments world-wide. With that said, many organizations have adopted a mix of approaches over the years and often find themselves at odds with themselves.
Look at your own organization and question whether you have some measures, processes or policies that reflect the behavioral approach at the same time as having some humanist programs within your performance management programs that may actually conflict with the pre-existing behavioral stuff.
Take some time to think about this. Then make two lists:

List #1: The first list should consist of all the measures, processes and policies that you are aware of. Try to categorize them by one of the four categories listed above: 1. Behavioral, 2. Cognitive, 3. Psychodynamic, and 4. Humanist.
List #2: The second list should assess conflicts that may exist between the identified topics on your first list. Identify, describe and assess the conflicts that may exist and then make a first pass attempt at resolving these issues.

In the next blog we’ll discuss the impacts of these motivational building blocks on “individual motivation.”

Larry Barnard

Four Elements that Create a Motivational Environment

Download our Management Insights article where author Mimi Banta offers up a “four pillar” solution that addresses the needs of individuals in order to create a more positive and productive team.

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