Not too long ago, I was caught-up in a spinning wheel. I would go through the motions every day at work—the emails, the small chats in the hallways, the back-to-back meetings, the one-on-ones with my manager strategizing about my career. And I would feel completely unmoved.
At first, it didn’t feel out of sync. After all, most people I know are not fond of their jobs. Studies consistently confirm it as well. Employee dis-engagement is around 70% in the U.S., according to the latest State of the American Workplace report by Gallup. So, I’m about average, I figure.
Then, slowly, my brain cells finally started synapsing again, and I begin to worry a bit. Is it such a good thing that I’m so typical in my behavior and attitudes when it comes to work? I wonder what it’s like to be passionate about what you do.
I can’t help but feel jealous of the likes of Sheryl Sandberg or Warren Buffet, or Bill Gates, or even the CEO of my own company. I envy their motivation.
Of course, the more salient question for me here is: How can I get there? Is it even possible to feel excited again about work?
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An Internet search on “How to become motivated at work?” is my first step to get some meaningful answers. Well…maybe not quite so. I can’t imagine advice like “stop bitching about it; just do it, or set a quit time” to make me more fulfilled at work. Even more serious websites don’t seem to be able to fully grasp my situation—again, I don’t quite align with “lose yourself in service, or ask for a raise” for instance, as a way to get me going every morning. I come to a rather unsurprising conclusion: the 10-bullet advice doesn’t quite work.
According to the famed Self-Determination theory, introduced in the mid-80s by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci—both professors of psychology from the University of Rochester, what drives us on a quest for self-enhancement are two distinct sets of instigators—external and internal.
These have been widely researched, and what has transpired is an outcome many are well aware of—external motivation (money, more specifically) is not a sustainable solution. In fact, 75K is the widely-accepted threshold of job satisfaction.
What’s even more—doing something for the sake of predominantly externalities has a detrimental effect on our internal motivation as we are three times less engaged than if we were motivated intrinsically.
But how do we become so driven, engaged and interested in what we do?
Of course, the most obvious answer is that we find our “dream” job, our true vocation—the one that will make us fulfilled. Or as Confucius proclaimed many years ago: “Choose a job that you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
The caveat here, of course, as many of us are painfully aware, is that it’s easier said than done. For a variety of reasons, we do or have held positions we only have a peripheral interest in, or otherwise known as “it-pays-the-bills” jobs.
I’ve found that even in situations where we feel that we hate every minute of our time spent at work and we believe that we can’t make it better in any way, we do have a choice and room for some improvements. Viktor Frankl once said: “Everything can be taken from a man but on thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
So, we have a choice in how we approach our lack of motivation.
Here’s what I found to work for me.
Many people believe that strategy and goals communication is solely an obligation of management. According to a much-cited research, 80% of employees from various industries don’t know how their work contributes to the company success, aren’t enthusiastic about their company goals, and don’t trust the organization.
But this is a journey that goes both ways. Companies must do a better job to align us with their long-term strategy. However, oftentimes, all the information is there for anyone to read —on the company’s website, for instance. When was the last time you checked to see what the business intends to do in the next year or five years and how it may link to your work?
Interestingly, career coaches often prescribe exactly the opposite—that to be successful, we need to commit to the process and not get too hung up on the outcome. Goals can sometimes be counter-productive, we are told, since we frequently focus on the end result, and not on improvement or the lessons we may learn along the way.
Fair enough. However, not knowing where we want to go, or not having a benchmark to measure our progress against can be highly demotivating too. We need to know what we want to achieve.
For instance, a mentality of “I’ll just play it by ear today” at work is not a good enough stimulus. Rather, we can think along the lines of: I’ll try to respond to at least 80% of my emails today, or I’ll finish that spreadsheet I started yesterday.
This idea taps into the notion about macro-vision. By volunteering to do more than it’s expected of us, we will gain access to teams and projects, which will help us further learn about the business and its different elements.
So, the idea here is to become engaged in more diverse ventures at work even if we don’t feel 100% prepared for or knowledgeable about, but it will widen our work horizons. Be mindful that there aren’t great benefits if we just take on more of the same type of work—a distinction, known in management theory as job enlargement vs. enrichment.
Sometimes, starting with the big finale in mind can be rather intimidating, discouraging and may even lead to some self-sabotaging. Therefore, once we have an understanding of where we want to go and what needs to be achieved, we should fragment these into smaller, more manageable steps. Many companies have such break-downs already in the form of strategic and tactical plans.
Or, as an article in Forbes magazine prescribed, “thinking small is the secret to big success.” To stay motivated, we seem to need both—a top-down approach to initially guide us at a high-level, and a bottom-up plan to outline the specific tactical steps we need to take.
That is, inoculate some creativity in the processes and create the habit of questioning what you do.
For instance, asking myself “Is this be best way this can be done?” has produced some “aha” moments and has kept me engaged and awake during the workday. It all starts with a critical mind and a predisposition to query the things we do. And yes, it does take some courage to go against paradigms such as “it’s always been done this way,” “don’t rock the boat,” or “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But it’s worth it. If anything, it pushes us to proactively keep our brain cells on their toes for a good purpose.
The Self-Determination theory I mentioned earlier focuses on three primary psychological human needs, as the drivers of internal motivation: autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Autonomy entails having a choice. It is not a desire to be separate and independent of others, but rather—especially in work settings, it’s the freedom to take decisions and to pick our style of work.
Competence is the sense of mastery and the confidence that we have control over out outcomes.
Later research by profs. Deci and Ryan has shown that these two elements can’t motivate separately. For instance, competence alone isn’t enough to inspire us, unless it’s accompanied by a sense of autonomy.
Relatedness means to seek connection, to feel a sense of belongingness and that we are understood and respected.
That is—search for jobs (or work towards creating an environment in our current position) which meet these three needs, science tells us, and we may create some very favorable grounds to nurture our skills and talents and to reach our potential.
Certainly, not an effortless endeavour, but again—think of Sheryl, Warren and Bill. What would or could you do to get to their level of job fulfillment? Then, imagine a life full of the pays-the-bills-only jobs. It’s a no-choice choice, really.
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In the end, we need to recognize that work is not going away, as much as many may dream about a coveted freedom—be it from the cubicle, or any other work environment. Admittedly, it’s not easy to wake up every day, year after year, and to feel illuminated and enthusiastic about paying our dues to society.
Motivation, Frederick Herzberg taught us in his famous HBR article, is like an internal battery.
”But it’s only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it.”
It sounds like a beautiful feeling—one that’s worth pursuing, I think. And not because we have to, but because we want to.