Why do we do what we do?

Finding meaning and purpose in our work is at the heart of positive energy and motivation.

Insights from ancient philosophers to modern day behavioral scientists show us that the answer is as complex as the question is simple. From a behavioral science point-of-view, “what we do” is easier to answer than the “why”. Most behavioral scientists agree that motivation is the energy we direct, via our thoughts and feelings, toward taking actions to achieve specific outcomes. Sometimes our motivation is conscious and explicit; at other times we are moved by non-conscious, implicit goals and feelings. Ask any parent as they labor to convince their child that homework matters more than playing — or try to understand why a graduate school student opts to become a ski instructor — and the mystery of why people do (or don’t do) what they do looms large.

Motivation at Work

Fortunately, when we narrow the context of motivation to “work”, the answers to the question of “what we do” and “why” are less complex. For starters, the motivation to work, particularly when it was preceded by building advanced knowledge and skills, helps answer the fundamental “why” question. People who have set educational and experiential goals, and then put in the time and energy to meet them, have self-selected themselves into a group of people that desire to find a useful purpose for those competencies. This leaves team leaders with the more manageable question of “how do I ensure that people are sufficiently motivated, energized, and engaged to do their best work?”

What Drives Motivation at Work?

The Architecture of Highly-Effective Teams: Importance of Individual Motivation

Decades of cross-cultural human motivation research identified three universal psychological needs that are essential for motivation at work: purpose, competence, and autonomy. To drive individual and team engagement and performance, team leaders must fuel motivation at work by meeting those universal needs for each team member in the context of the team’s goals and the individual’s aspirations. Let’s look at each of those needs in more detail and see how team leaders use their understanding of them to build upon solid team fundamentals.

Purpose

Finding meaning and purpose in our work is at the heart of positive energy and motivation. Purpose is what gets us out of bed every day believing that we are doing something worthwhile. Great leaders help each team member understand how their work makes a difference to the team, the achievement of the team’s goals, and to the aspirations of the individual. In the words of John Quincy Adams, leaders inspire people to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.

Competence

Feeling confident about our ability to excel in our work is fundamental to our actual performance. Where does confidence come from? It comes from a high level of competence in the individual tasks that make up the day-to-day work that we do. An elite basketball player must master dribbling, passing, shooting, plus offense and defense before putting all of the elements together to play a great game. Confidence that is based on actual competence is particularly important for each member of a high-performance team. Exceptional team leaders invest in developing the competencies and capabilities that give each team member confidence that they can achieve the team’s goals, as well as their personal ambitions.

Autonomy

Autonomy is our innate drive to exercise control over our role and priorities at work. With clarity of purpose, and a high level of competency, comes the strong desire for the freedom to perform. This freedom is especially important to knowledge workers and people with high levels of training and skills. Returning to our elite basketball player, once he has mastered the skills to perform at a professional level, he will have a strong drive to show-off his skills. Team leaders must ensure that team members have the autonomy to demonstrate their competencies while helping them stay focused on achieving the goals of the team.

Purpose, competence, and autonomy. Once you have a solid team foundation in place, understanding those universal needs — and managing the relationship between them for each team member — is critical to both team effectiveness and individual team member well-being. As described by the Architecture of Highly-Effective Teams, it is the layering of solid team fundamentals, combined with a clear understanding of how to foster motivation at work, that establishes the conditions under which team excellence emerges. The key to successfully implementing the Architecture revolves around the relationships that sit at its heart.


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