When was the last time you have completely lost yourself in a task? Been so absorbed by it, so in the zone, that the rest of the world fell away into the background? Do you remember what it was you were doing when that happened? What the task was? Can you remember what it was about the task that was so captivating? Chances are, whatever you were doing, you were not thinking about how much money you could be earning while doing it. That feeling of unassailable concentration where you are motivated to keep going despite hunger or thirst, despite the incessant nagging of your inbox, despite the constant notifications on your phone, that “flow state” feeling; it is one of the things money can’t buy. What would a day at work look like if you and your entire staff could stay that motivated though? If you can’t buy that form of motivation, how can you create it?
The American workplace has a long history of using monetary incentives as a means of motivating employees. The traditional approach has existed for so long because it works, but only to a point. It is one piece of the motivation puzzle, and arguably it is not the most important one. If you read Lillian Valdez’s blog, “Employee Retention & Hiring Strategies in a Post-Covid Labor Market,” from last month, you know that financial incentives aren’t the most important factor in accepting or staying in a job anymore. There is a big part of the puzzle missing. To help us complete it we must turn to one of the founding theories of psychology, Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.
If you have never heard of Maslow, you are likely still familiar with his work. Maslow theorized that every person has a priority of needs that must be filled before they are concerned with the next one. The base level is comprised of physical needs, i.e., food, water, etc. Then it moves up the pyramid to security, then social needs, ego and esteem, and finally self-actualization. Maslow goes on to state that the fulfillment of those needs is what motivates behavior. If you don’t have food, your priority is doing what you must do to get food. If that means going to work at an estate planning firm, then that’s what you do. Maslow’s theories form the foundation for the Needs-Based Theories of Motivation of which there are several. Think about where money fits into this. Sure, money will secure food and shelter, it might also serve part of the social needs or ego, but the connection starts to get thin the higher up you go. I’m betting what got you into that flow state you were thinking about a moment ago, had nothing to do with how secure you were making your food source.
Money exists as an extrinsic motivator, or rather a motivation or reward that exists outside of yourself. According to Frederick Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory of motivation, money is a “Hygiene Factor” which means it only motivates if it is absent and once it is present in adequate amounts, it stops motivating. More current research has watered down Herzberg’s conclusions, but it still holds true to a certain extent. Victor Vroom’s VIE theory goes on to expand that an extrinsic motivator must score high on three factors to be effective. Those three factors are:
- Expectancy – meaning a person must believe that putting in more effort will result in higher performance
- Instrumentality – where they believe that performance leads to an outcome or reward
- Valence – where a person believes the outcome is worthwhile
To predict the impact of an extrinsic motivator you multiply the three scores together. For example, let’s say you offer your team each a one-million-dollar bonus if the firm brings in one hundred million in revenue by the end of the year. You may think that would inspire them to work harder than they have ever before but it likely won’t. Why? First, ask yourself how they would score their expectancy. Hopefully in your firm they believe that putting in more effort leads to better performance. Let’s score a .8 on this one. There is no question that they will find one million dollars worthwhile, so let’s set their valence score to a full 1. So far so good, but everything falls apart with the instrumentality score. If your staff doesn’t believe that their increased performance will create the outcome, if they don’t think it is possible to earn one hundred million in revenue no matter how well they perform, the instrumentality score hits 0, and when you calculate the score, V x I x E the final result is also 0! This is an extreme example, but it highlights the point that extrinsic motivators have limitations and need to be carefully thought out. So, what’s the alternative?
Let’s revisit that moment when you were in your flow state. If you weren’t absorbed in the task because of the reward for doing it, why were you? If it wasn’t because you were motivated by an extrinsic motivator, then it must be because you were motivated by an intrinsic one! Intrinsic motivators are factors within a person or task that inspire someone to put in time and effort. The amazing thing is that what those factors are, completely depend on the person.
For me, I love any task that allows me to learn something new, solve a problem, and be creative. Give me a task that lets me do all three and I will be up until 3am blissfully unaware of the time while getting it done. I may even volunteer to do it for free. What kind of tasks do that for you?
If you are like me, there are a lot of different things that motivate you, and according to the David McClelland’s Acquired Needs theory each motivator serves to fulfill one of three basic needs:
- Need for Achievement – is fulfilled by motivators such as being able to master a skill, becoming the best at something, proving to yourself that you can succeed.
- Need for Power – is fulfilled when you are leading a team, working on something you own or have influence over, having your vision get realized.
- Need for Relatedness – is fulfilled through helping people, serving your community, contributing to something greater than yourself.
The amount that any given person is motivated by any of these is completely dependent on the person. Think of how productive you or your team could be, how much more enjoyable your workdays could be, if you knew what intrinsically motivated each of you. Could that be enough to ensure the highest performance?
The current most widely accepted and strongly supported theory of motivation, Self-Determination Theory, (SDT), states that motivation is dependent on a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Furthermore, motivators themselves lie on a spectrum, so that none are fully extrinsic or intrinsic. Think about it, earning a financial bonus means more than just money in your pocket, right? For some, it can be a step towards financial independence, increase the respect of your peers, and evidence of mastering a task and doing a job well. Similar to Acquired Needs Theory, SDT also identifies three basic psychological needs that every person has; the need for Autonomy, the need for Relatedness (or Belonging), and the need for Competence. The ABCs of motivation. SDT’s middle-ground approach says you need to be using all the tools at your disposal to properly motivate yourself and your staff.
Taken all together, if you understand the things that motivate you and your team, use that knowledge to design your workplace to maximize both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Develop reward structures that truly motivate and maximize the opportunities for you or your team to perform tasks that are intrinsically interesting. You may very well find yourself working in a firm where everyone is happily absorbed in their work and lost in the flow of their tasks. How nice would that be? Thankfully you have many resources at your disposal to help make this happen. In the Peak Performers Program we often discuss and help identify “Unique Abilities” which are the tasks that you enjoy and excel at. We then encourage you to delegate or abandon everything else. MCM’s PXT select assessment test identifies the interests of you and your staff allowing you to identify the position that will be most motivating for each member of your team. Finally, you can always reach out to your PBCs and ask them for aid. Quick warning though, PBCs love fulfilling their need for relatedness so we may lose track of time while we are helping you.
Comment below to share how you’ve taken steps or plan to take steps to develop these structures in your firm.
Practice Building Coach
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128
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