What motivates us? Self−Determination Theory

Bogotá, Colombia − Most of us have heard the term “motivation” thousands of times in various areas of our lives. Companies are increasingly concerned about “getting the best talent” and ensuring that this great talent is motivated.

Likewise, in our professional lives we may come to the realization that the high salary that was once the sole motivating factor is now no longer sufficient. While I do not say that compensation is unimportant, it is certainly not the only variable that a “talented” professional considers when deciding between two companies.

In his book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us," Daniel Pink defines two types of professionals: those with Type X (extrinsic) behavior and those with Type I (intrinsic) behavior.

Type X professionals do not care whether their work activity satisfies them or not, but are keen on tangible external rewards such as high remuneration and recognition.

Conversely, Type I professionals are more concerned with the inherent satisfaction that comes from completing an activity successfully. They find intrinsic motivation in the task itself, and this pushes them to improve every time, seeking exceptional results.

I'm not saying that Type I executives do not care about money or recognition – of course they do! However, once executives are receiving an appropriate level of compensation for their role in the organization, money plays a different role for the two types: for Type I executives, money and recognition are not goals in themselves, while conversely, money and recognition are the sole reasons why Type X executives do what they do.

In November 2008, a number of professors at MIT conducted a study with their students. The participants were divided into three groups and given a series of tasks for which they had to develop skills such as concentration, creativity and mobility. A scale was established where the groups got certain levels of reward. Ultimately, the researchers concluded that if a task involved the development of mechanical and repetitive skills, the “better reward = better results” model worked well. Many organizations motivate their employees in this way – they offer a competitive salary and expect their employees to develop accordingly. But what happened when the task required the exercise of cognitive skills? The researchers found that the subjects who received the highest level of reward did not achieve the best results, and those who received a lower level of reward obtained equal or better results.

These results were reinforced by another study performed in the following year (2009) by Dr. Bernd Irlenbusch of the London School of Economics, who concluded: “We find that financial incentives may indeed reduce intrinsic motivation…as a consequence, the provision of incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”

I believe that these studies are warning us to change the way we motivate “talent” in organizations. At this point, I would like us to stop and look at Self Determination Theory (SDT).

This theory gives us an idea of the universal human needs, and tells us that there are three innate psychological needs: competence – the ability to do something, autonomy – the freedom to do something, and relationships – to relate to others. As human beings, we have the innate capacity to be curious and interested. When children are in the exploratory stage (between 1 and 3 years old) they take an interest in everything around them. How does it work? What is it for? How does it fit into my reality? At this age, if a child’s innate psychological needs have been satisfied by the adults in her life, s/he will be more motivated to produce more, which will make her/him happier.

If we want our organizations to be sustainable entities, we must overcome the mentality of reward and punishment, which only leads to poor results where people do what they do solely for the reward at the end. We need organizational systems that will strengthen competence, autonomy and relationships.

Let us provide the "talent" in our companies with the drive and opportunities to be highly motivated and become the best at what they do. Are the leaders of the organizations truly motivated? Or is it possible that they are just doing what they do because of extrinsic motivations that generate power and authority? Are the leaders motivating agents, who will generate core changes in the organization?

In the current economic system, where changes occur at an unimaginable speed and where the need to adapt is unquestionable, we require versatile companies, where every employee has the capacity to make decisions – autonomy – with the certainty of having made the best decision – competence – and the confidence of having the support of the management – relationships.

In my opinion, Colombian companies still have a long way to go. There are some interesting developments, but this kind of cultural change can take years, and we have only recently seen an economic environment in which such practices can be promoted. I would therefore like to call upon Colombian companies to consider the kind of people that they are developing in their organizations, and how their organizational systems are helping to create future leaders.

Fernanda Garcia is the Country Manager for Colombia at Pedersen & Partners. Before joining the firm, Ms. Garcia was the Country Manager for Colombia for another international Executive Search firm, where she was responsible for the business development of the client portfolio in industries such as Telecommunications, IT, Consumer Goods, Finance, Oil & Gas and Services. She has extensive experience in consulting and project management in Europe and Latin America with strong knowledge of human resources, change management and business processes. Before moving to the Executive Search industry, Ms. Garcia was a Senior Account Manager for a well-known human consulting firm based in Madrid, Spain. She has also gained experience as a Change Management Consultant at Ernst & Young, where she developed the practice for Colombia, Perú and Costa Rica.

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