Getting motivation right: Q&A with performance psychologist Gavin Freeman
If we all know motivation within a workplace is vital, why do so many get it wrong? Performance psychologist Gavin Freeman shares his unique insight into what drives us to perform.

None of us are strangers to the importance of motivation. It is a concept we have long been familiar with, but it is an elusive one that has proven difficult to get right. Just ask workers in any business and chances are they will tell you motivation is an issue.

Gavin Freeman, performance psychologist and author of Just Stop Motivating Me, says managers for the most part have been getting it wrong.

“We long ago brought in the carrot and the stick,” Freeman says. “We thought if we put a carrot in front of somebody, it would motivate them to move forward. And if we brought out the stick and whacked them, it would motivate them to stop doing the wrong thing. Clearly, that didn’t work but to this day most managers still try it.”

“We then moved towards positive and negative reinforcement. If I pat you on the back and give you accolades, that will motivate you to continue. If I gave you negative feedback, maybe in a performance review, that would stop poor performances.”

The problem, Freeman says, was that several perfectly good and apparently high-functioning businesses still hit the wall when times got tough, or when disruptors enter the market. Think of Kodak and Encarta.

“It made me realise motivation needed to be approached from a completely different direction,” Freeman says. “I believe we are motivated across a continuum from being ‘motivated to succeed’ to being ‘motivated to avoid failure’. The latter can be a disastrous result for a business.”

What exactly is motivation?

If you think about your own daily activity, whether it's about getting up in the morning and going to work, or understanding the effort required to achieve goals, or responding in a crisis, motivation is the fuel of persistence.

What’s the difference between motivation to succeed and to avoid failure?

Everybody is motivated, but our behaviours are altered by whether we're motivated to succeed or motivated to avoid failure. Think of public speaking. Many people hate it, so if I force them onto a stage they’d be motivated to avoid failure. That means they will be highly sensitive to a potential negative evaluation. In their mind they will be thinking, ‘I’d better not screw this up’. Therefore, they will be overly careful and likely quite average.

But the person motivated to succeed is driven by the thought that failure is simply a stepping stone to success. Failure is not even failure, it is instead a valuable learning process.

Interestingly, both people might appear exactly the same to you and I as we watch them speak. It's not until failure is presented that we begin to see different types of behaviours.

How do managers use this knowledge to better motivate staff?

This is where my book title - Just Stop Motivating Me - comes into play. I think managers need to stop motivating, or at least stop thinking about it the way they do. We need to stop thinking that our role as a leader is to motivate somebody else. Our role is actually to create an environment in which the right type of motivation can thrive.

When somebody is motivated to succeed and their organisation has created a context that supports such motivation, individuals become task focused. They want to display mastery over the task. They plan and put in huge effort and are ethical.

By that I mean that when a failure occurs, they not only increase their effort and intensity by reflecting and refocusing, but they also take ownership of any error. When people do that it helps build trust within an organisation, which in-turn enhances motivation for others.

On the other hand, when people are motivated to avoid failure we see them wanting to display superiority over others. They're wanting to win at any cost. They lose team focus, strive for meritocracy and never admit mistakes. Someone once described it to me as the ‘CARE factor’ – Cover Arse, Retain Employment.

How does a manager create the right environment?

There are a couple of things involved in this:

  1. Leaders need to have a clear understanding of how their strategic goals are translating into operational plans. If you’re given an impossible task by management and you simply know it won’t work, you won’t be motivated to succeed.

  2. Most organisations set strategic plans at Board level. But I encourage organisations I work with to encourage staff to ask for forgiveness, not permission. It generates some angst and uncertainty amongst some leaders because it takes away some of their control, but as a leader you should be allowed to step back and let your people have a go, let them make mistakes and take some accountability. Success, then, is about making sure the right people are in the right roles and have the right mindset.

  3. I just mentioned accountability. If people in organisations don't feel they're actually accountable for tasks, they're never going to achieve them. We need to remove the ‘someone factor’. In organisations we come up with great ideas and then say, ‘Someone should do it’. A highly motivated organisation doesn't say that. They have individuals who say, ‘This is what I'm choosing to do and I know I've got the backing of my organisation. If it doesn't work, we'll learn from it and we'll move on.’