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The motivation rules of the industrial game in the last decades can be summarized as a “carrot-and-stick approach.” This worked well for routine, unchallenging, and highly controlled tasks. The process is straightforward and lateral thinking is not necessary, thus benefits and incentives can provide a small motivational boost without side effects. But the environment has changed dramatically, as have jobs in the digital industry. They are more complex, more interesting, and more self-directed…and this is where the carrot- and-stick approach does not work anymore. So what are the new rules of the game? What works and makes us achieve the best performance in these challenging days of the digital transformation?

Climbing the Mount Everest in a Bikini

Thanks to different disciplines from brain research to behavioral sciences, from sociology to psychology, from medicine to organizational development, we possess today more knowledge and scientifically proven evidence on how to achieve the best performance than ever before. We understand today what we do, why we do things, what makes us do things better, and what we can do to increase and decrease our performance in any aspect of life. If we only applied what we knew. That’s the real pity of today: there are all the answers on managing our performance in the best possible way, but in terms of what we apply, what we teach our students, what we incorporate into our organizations, and what we implement in our daily life, it is like climbing Mount Everest in a bikini. No wonder we experience so much trouble with frequently falling down and being hurt, getting off track, not making it to full speed, and never experiencing the greatness of reaching the top.

Ante portas awareness

Thanks to the new values and success criteria embraced by visionary leaders, there is finally a chance now at the digital entrance to the twenty-first century to implement what scientists have been trying to tell us for decades:

  • Motivation: People have a strong intrinsic motivation to perform a task, especially where there is a great degree of autonomy.
  • Community: A good community will solve any problem, especially complex ones, faster than individual firefighters.
  • Purpose: Humans are much more interested in serving a purpose than doing tasks for monetary rewards only.

True motivation comes from within

To understand what is needed for the best performance, one has to analyze what drives us, what motivates us to perform at the top level, to reach our best. Psychologists and management practitioners came up with different theories about and approaches to human motivation: Maslow approached it from a psychological realm, with motivation revolving around human needs and motives. Management scholars like Herzberg focused their theories around incentives and inducement frameworks. And Gestalt psychologists focus on perception being the only determinant of behavior. It is not only the intensity of the motivation that counts but also the quality or type of motivation an individual experiences. Qualitative or controlled motivation occurs when external forces affect an individual’s behavior, whereas the much more appreciated autonomous or intrinsic motivation occurs when individuals feel that the reason for their motivation comes from within, making them act autonomously, according to their will, as they have internalized the reason for acting.

In the flow is the place to be

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi can be described as one of the pioneers and founding fathers of analyzing and understanding top performance and happiness. He observed high performers in different disciplines—sports, science, economics—and realized that they are capable of achieving excellent performance over a long period of time without getting exhausted. He called this state flow—a state of concentration on the activity at hand and the situation, in which nothing else matters. This flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. In order to make a flowlike state and “full happiness” possible, three main parameters must be met:

  • Autonomy: I can decide for myself which task I perform when, how, and with whom.
  • Competence: I have (or have access to) the necessary skills, resources, and environment needed to perform a task.
  • Relatedness: I understand why I am doing this task, what this task means for the bigger cause, and I experience a feeling of security and belonging.

To make the best performance possible in the digital economyy, we need to make sure that these three key parameters for allowing flow to happen are understood by each individual leader and the organization as such. Even more importantly, we change the organizational setting in a way that allows individuals to act autonomously, easily acquire and access the needed competencies, and understand the purpose of the work they do.

For some organizations this sounds like a difficult, tedious task, whereas others consider this the basics of a good leadership practice. Wherever you and your team are on this scale, make sure you are NOW actively having these discussions within your leadership team AND subsequently an implementation of good measures in your organization… because wasting time on these mission-critical pieces is not an option you want to go for!