In a book where the subject is maximum positive impact, it’s not surprising that there will be some discussion about motivation. In order to maximize your impact, we need to motivate ourselves but we also often need to motivate other people.

What is motivation? Ed Deci is a professor of psychology at University of Rochester and Co-Founder of Self-Determination Theory. Deci (4.5) defines it as the “the energy for action – it’s what gets you up in the morning and moves you through the day.” He says that most people see motivation as a “unitary concept” – meaning that they think of it purely as a quantitative concept that can be measured and therefore can only differ in amount. Or put another way, you can only have more or less motivation. Teachers, bosses, parents obviously want their subjects to have “more” motivation in order to behave in the way that they want them to behave. 

Although you can measure the quantity of somebody’s motivation and see how it results in a higher quantity of a specific behavior, there is a lot more to a person than the quantity of their behavior. Deci says that it’s more important to look at the quality of somebody’s behavior. He provides the example of giving two people two hours to read something. The first person reads it again and again and memorizes every fact in the material. The second person reads it with an equal amount of motivation but looks for themes in the material and attempts to consume the material in a more conceptual way that involves understanding how the pieces relate to each other and how they fit within the big picture. The amount of motivation from both people is approximately the same however the quality of learning is very different.

Deci  has spent approximately 30 years working on a theory of motivation that he calls “self-determination theory”. His theory distinguishes between “controlled motivation” and “autonomous motivation”. 

He describes controlled motivation as the carrot and stick approach. If you have been motivated in this way it may have been because you have been seduced into motivation by an offer of a reward or possibly coerced into motivation by threat of punishment but, in both cases, you feel a lot of pressure, tension and anxiety. Deci’s research also indicates that when motivation is controlled people tend to take the shortest path to the desired outcome. Again, this means there is no thought for the overall objective.

On the other hand, when people are autonomously motivated they experience a willingness to want to do what they are doing. Deci says that autonomous motivation comes in two forms. The first relates to interest and enjoyment. If you’re interested in some activity and you enjoy doing it then you are already motivated to act. The other form of autonomous motivation arises from your deeply held values and beliefs. If something is truly important to you or something that you value then you will be very willing to engage in a behavior that is consistent with it. For example, if you’re a parent and your child has been diagnosed with a serious disease, you do not need to be motivated by some external force or person to do something about it. Further, you will not be measuring your success by the amount of motivation or the amount of behavior. You’ll be measuring your success by the progress you make toward solving the problem. 

Deci says that there are hundreds of scientific investigations that indicate that when you’re autonomously motivated your behavior will be more creative, you will be a better problem solver, your performance will be better and your emotions will be much more positive. Autonomous motivation is also associated with psychological and physical health.

If it is better to be autonomously motivated then how do we get people to be autonomously motivated? Deci says that the first step is to take on the perspective of the person you are trying to motivate. Try to understand how that person sees the situation. Ask yourself what their internal frame of reference might be. Then allow them to participate in the decision-making process and encouraging them to be self starters. Deci says that it is critical to provide them with a meaningful rationale for what you want them to do. A task in isolation is much less interesting and motivating than a task that forms part of a meaningful big picture.

Deci says that the research also tells us that when teachers are autonomously supportive their students learn in a deeper more conceptual way, enjoy learning more and they feel more confident and competent about themselves. When doctors are autonomously supportive their patients take the medications more reliably and have better diet and exercise habits. When coaches are more autonomy supportive their athletes persist longer at an activity, feel better about themselves while doing it and work together better as a team. When bosses are more autonomy supportive their subordinates perform better. When parents are more autonomy supportive their children have better mental health and do better in school.

However, the relationships discussed above are based on authority but many of our relationships are with people where there is no authority (like friends, family, etc). Deci says that the research shows that you will not have a high-quality relationship if you do not feel autonomous within it. He says that you should try answering the following questions. Are you really interested in your partner? Do you give to them freely? Are you clear about your own needs in the relationship so that they are out there on the table? Do you negotiate in good faith? Importantly, do you do all of these things fully willingly?

Deci says that, instead of asking how you can motivate other people, ask how can you create the conditions in which other people can motivate themselves? 

Next article in this series: “Early-Stage Relationships”

Scroll to Top