Motivation is personal. What drives one person may be unappealing (or even abhorrent) to another. Motivation is an inducement. It’s something that causes a person to respond in a desired way – to work harder, to choose a certain course, or to respond in a preferred manner. Knowing your own, personal motivation will make you more effective and more self-reliant.
The term “self-motivated” is a perennial favorite in job descriptions. It means being driven by one’s own desires and ambitions. Your personal motivation is the reason you do what you do. It’s why you make the choices that you make. To be self-motivated, you must first know what your personal motivation is. You can’t be driven unless you have desires and ambitions and are clear about what they are.
Who’s Responsible for Motivation in the Workplace?
In addition to seeking employees who are self-motivated, employers look for managers who are effective in motivating others. “Motivating others” is a key competency for most in supervisory roles.
Unfortunately, the role of a manager in motivating others isn’t really clear. Few managers receive training in what it means to motivate others. That’s why they rely so heavily on simplistic “carrot and stick” approaches. They offer incentives (bonuses, merit increases, recognition programs) as carrots or positive motivators. And they use sticks as disincentives, withholding pay increases or writing up employees who do not perform as needed.
These are all extrinsic motivations. They come from external sources. They link motivation to performance and work-based rewards or punishments. They completely ignore the more powerful intrinsic motivations that are longer-lasting and more easily sustained.
Intrinsic motivation is personal. It comes from within and is different for each of us. Intrinsic motivation, whether positive or negative, is a stronger driver than extrinsic carrots and sticks. Our deep-down values, beliefs, and desires are what ultimately steer our decisions and choices.
Extrinsic motivators can work in the short-term. But they can also cause resentment and make people feel manipulated. Over-relying on carrots and sticks will often backfire.
Effective managers understand the importance of tapping into personal motivation. They create environments where people can feel motivated. Those environments are harmonious, productive, supportive, and ennobling. Those managers get to know individuals well enough to adapt what they do to make them feel special and truly rewarded. This requires effort and insight, but it can make a real difference in the effectiveness of entire organizations.
Even managers who tap into intrinsic motivation can’t be solely responsible for motivating others. It’s up to each individual to maintain their own high levels of motivation. To be effective, you’ll need to reach deep at times. Your personal motivation will help you get through the work that’s less exciting, more challenging, or fraught with distractions.
How to Discover and Tap into Your Own Personal Motivation
Some people know exactly what they’re working for. It could be career advancement. Maybe it’s reaching a certain level of income and/or the status symbols that come with it. For some, it’s the satisfaction that comes by producing real results and making a difference. For others, it’s the stability and future opportunities for family.
When it comes to your “why” or working, there is no right answer. This is personal! This is not about wanting what others believe you should want. There’s no judgment that’s appropriate here. As long as you’re working for somebody else’s reason(s), you’re missing out on personal motivation.
Here’s an example in one family: The parents want stability for their adult son. They think stability and happiness are linked. To them, stability is represented by a well-paying job, traditional house in a tony neighborhood, and a cushy savings account. The son, however, is adventurous. He doesn’t want to be tied down by a job, so he works in the gig economy as a solopreneur. He doesn’t want to be burdened with the care and maintenance of a house, so he keeps a studio apartment in the city. He prefers to live “in the moment” and spends his money on world travel.
The parents are motivated by their values and can’t understand why stability isn’t motivating to their son. He’s tried it and found himself unhappy and restless. By understanding his own personal motivation, he made different choices that liberated him to pursue those drivers (travel, freedom, etc.).
If you’re doing what someone else defined as “right” and feel similarly dissatisfied, you may want to re-evaluate what really matters to you. Determining your own core values, genuine preferences, and reasons to do what you do can be profoundly clarifying.
There are exercises and assessments to help you make these types of discoveries. Mostly, though, it’s a matter of being honest with yourself. Ask yourself these questions to get started:
- What is the single most important achievement you’d like to make in your lifetime?
- How do you define success for yourself?
- What do you enjoy and look forward to doing?
- When you “hit the wall,” what do you need to keep trying?
- What do you wish you could do more often? Better? Why would that matter to you?
- If there were no external pressures, expectations, or responsibilities, what would you be doing?
- What are you doing when you feel most fulfilled?
- What do you go to great lengths to avoid doing? Why?
- How do you respond to those internal messages that can cause self-doubt?
- What takes the wind out of your sails?
Getting clarity on what drives you and what makes you hit the brakes you will help you determine your most powerful personal motivations – the ones that are intrinsic and come from you, not from others.
Once you discover your personal motivations, the next step is to dignify them. They aren’t “right” or “wrong.” They just are. Accepting them will make them easier to leverage for the good and to work around when they hold you back.
Tapping into your positive personal motivations means you get to set up rewards for yourself and to celebrate the progress toward getting what’s most appealing to you. Don’t deny yourself those opportunities!
Burnout, Low Morale, Feeling Disengaged… You Bear Responsibility Here, too
A look at motivation wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging that there are times when it seems very difficult to access.
If you’re experiencing burnout at work, for example, it may seem impossible to feel motivated. Even when you aspire to get something that matters to you, there will be times when the volume of work or extrinsic demotivators swamp you.
At times like these, it’s tempting to externalize the blame. Your boss, the economy, the customers, the new technology or processes… there are plenty of scapegoats to choose from!
The problem with blaming others for your burnout and morale issues is this: By doing so, you disempower yourself. While waiting for others to make change, you sentence yourself to a prolonged period of being overwhelmed or feeling disengaged.
You do have more control than the current circumstances seem to indicate. Instead of accepting the status quo, refuse to accept the circumstances that interfere with attainment of your personal motivation. You can:
- Take a vacation if it’s overdue. They do work wonders!
- Set boundaries by assertively advocating for what you need.
- Be an advocate for change, enlisting others in positive and proactive ways.
- Ask for clarity in what’s important, what’s urgent, and what the priorities should be.
- Diagnose the root cause problems and participate in solving them.
- Don’t accept the current circumstances as the “new normal.” Make small improvements wherever you can. You can’t change everything, but there are some things you can!
- Don’t forget about self-care. You can’t do your best if you aren’t at your best.
If you’d like to overcome burnout, become more engaged in your work, or need some help discovering your personal motivations, consider working with a professional coach. Ideally, your organization will also be taking steps to minimize stress-inducing conditions. But since you can’t control what happens around you, take proactive steps that you can in order to control how you respond. By managing your own responses, emotions, and engagement, you will feel more motivated and less stressed.