Motivation During Difficult Times

5 Insights From Current Literature

Hassan Saeed

Motivation is a handy word that has been thrown around for good measure in management literature for the past 80 years. Psychologists, especially organizational psychologists, have studied the reasons why people work and how we can enhance/amplify these reasons to make people produce more. More recently, employee engagement has been touted as a silver bullet solution to increase productivity. Both motivation and engagement, as social sciences suggest, will be very much context, situation and individual dependent. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to motivation and engagement. We are irrational and fickle by nature. Very few things can be true across the board all of the time. One thing however is quite clear - none of us like uncertainty. Our lives have been on hold for a while now. We all need new direction, greater clarity, a nudge, a pat on the back to get us going again.

This is an attempt at unpacking the wisdom of some of the most popular writings on motivation in recent times and a distillation of insights that can be applied to keep teams going in a time of uncertainty like this.

Provide clarity of purpose

In his book The Power of Human, Adam Waytz of the Kellog Management School discusses what he calls the ‘human powered’ motivation. He draws on multiple studies by other psychologists. His claim is that people are driven by a sense of duty to others. People like to do things that is beneficial to other people. This is consistent with a number of other studies that Nava Ashraf and colleagues did in parts of Africa to find out how pro social behavior motivated teachers and healthcare workers. The practical insight here is to give people a deeper connection with the consequences of their work - be it a product they help develop or the lifestyle their families can afford as a result of their work. This can be done with subtle nudges or more overt and explicit communication with individuals and teams. People love their work when they find purpose and in the notable study that Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues did with hospital cleaners further confirm this.

One of the greatest contributors to anxiety and stress is our ability to imagine things. Ironically, this is the same ability that makes special as a species and makes us creative. In a time of uncertainty, people stress over what will happen next. Managers and leaders need to help their teams stay focused during times like these and help them connect with the future in a positive manner. Discuss plans and show them the silver lining or the light at the end of the tunnel.

Instill, encourage and promote integrity

According to Professor Schwarz, work is more often a source of frustration than one of fulfillment for nearly 90 percent of the world’s workers. Think of the social, emotional, and perhaps even economic waste that this statistic represents. Ninety percent of adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be. Ever since McGregor’s Theory X, some managers have always put people in ‘boxes’ and labeled them. Knowing that they are not trusted by the owner or the manager can demoralize and alienate people. People need to be trusted and given as many opportunities as possible to show their integrity.

Building a culture of trust is important for any team. Human beings have endless capacity to do good and the assumption that they would want to do good should be the rule and the opposite the exemption.

Give as much autonomy as possible

The basis of Deci & Ryan's Self-determination theory is that the need for growth drives behavior. People want to learn and develop skills, connect with other people and do things on their own. Daniel Pink too suggests that mastery of tasks is what a lot of humans strive for. These are universal psychological needs and facilitating the right atmosphere for this to thrive is of utmost importance.

This is a great opportunity for individuals to gain additional knowledge, learn new skills, enhance existing ones and gain mastery as there are plenty of virtual learning courses and programs available online.

Incentivize with unexpected non-monetary rewards

Money and financial rewards gets people through the door but surprisingly, they are not much of a help in keeping them in and making them produce. As Dan Ariely recounts some of the experiments that he has conducted, an unexpected reward of pizza from the manager had a much greater impact on productivity. In a nutshell, more acts of appreciation and recognition is what makes people go the extra mile. That said, financial compensation up to the point of 'fair pay' is an absolute must to keep teams and individuals from thinking about the greener pastures on the other side.

Show more appreciation, find more reasons to recognize and reward teams and individuals for their contribution.

Let individuals experiment and try out new ideas and learn new skills

Job crafting is one of the ways that individuals derive meaning from what they do. More often than not, except in the creative fields, those who enjoy what they do, deviate from what is prescribed for them in the job description. This was one of the outcomes that Amy Wrzesniewski and team discovered with hospital cleaning crew. Those who enjoyed their work as hospital cleaners did more than cleaning. They changed paintings in patient's rooms, read to them and helped the elderly cross the parking lot - all these without been told by their supervisors. They get a genuine sense of fulfilment by helping and making themselves useful to others.

People paint their offices and decorate their tables and work spaces to their liking and this can increase their sense of belonging.

According to David Epstein, author of Range, insight from LinkedIn data over the last 15 years suggest that those who make it to the CEO positions experience a broad range of many different things in their careers. It is therefore important to encourage individuals to experience new things. instead of becoming an I shaped, where we gain really deep knowledge in just one area, it is always more beneficial in the long run to become T shaped where we have a good understanding of a broad range of things and depth of expertise in one area. Better still, M shape should be the ultimate career goal for young people to gain competency in multiple areas.

Balancing life is important for good mental health hygiene. Covid-19 has pushed the pause button for many of us and given us the ability to reset everything if need be. Use this opportunity to review and revise your workplace so that it becomes conducive to healthy, productive and fulfilling.

Hassan Saeed, Resort Manager at Dhigali Maldives
Hassan Saeed is a career hotelier with over 25 years of experience in Maldives tourism and resort operation. His specialities include strategic HRM, training and development, service operations and continuous improvement. He is passionate about behavioural economics and how concepts like ‘Nudge’ can be applied in service settings. Hassan identifies himself as a lifelong learner. He currently holds the position of Resort Manager at Dhigali Maldives.