The topic of motivation is one we’ve been tracking and thinking about for years. That’s because it’s incredibly important for us as learning business leaders to understand the tremendous effect it has on learning.
And when it comes to the topic of motivation, we continually find ourselves referring to Edward Deci’s, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, a book we strongly feel needs to be in the library of every learning business professional.
In this episode of the Leading Learning podcast, Celisa and Jeff give a high-level look at the key elements of human motivation from Deci’s book. They discuss the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, the importance of finding the balance between the two, and the impact this all has on learning.
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[00:18] –Our sponsor for this episode is Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD), our annual virtual conference designed specifically for those who work in the business of lifelong learning, continuing education, and professional development.
Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation
[02:20] – The topic of motivation is something we’ve been tracking and thinking about for years. When we think, talk, and write about motivation the person we have in mind as a reference is Edward Deci. Specifically, his book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation– something we’ll call an Emphatically Recommended Read, putting it in the vaunted company of Blue Ocean Strategy, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.
We strongly feel Why We Do What We Do needs to be in the library of every learning business professional. The book was first published in 1995 but it’s definitely withstood the test of time.
Deci is professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and director of the human motivation program there so he’s spent years studying motivation and really figuring out what it is that makes people do what they do.
In terms of framing out human motivation in general and the underpinnings of self-determination theory (SDT), Deci and his research partner Richard Ryan, really focus in on three aspects: autonomy, competence, and connectedness. They strongly believe these are the fundamental elements of human motivation.
Three Aspects of Human Motivation
[05:02] – A high level look at the three aspects of human motivation:
- Autonomy– the idea of being in control and feeling like you as a human being/learner have command of your situation; there’s also an element of choice. Unfortunately, adult learners still don’t feel autonomous in many learning experiences.
- Competence – feeling like you have the right skills and knowledge to be able to pursue what you’re engaged in/learning about. It can be very demotivating if you’re out of your depth and can’t do what’s being asked of you. It can also be demotivating if you’re in an environment where everything is too easy. This can be very tricky for those in the learning business because the learners tend to be all over the map.
- Connectedness – the idea that you need to be able to connect what you’re learning back to your life and others in order to draw meaning. We think of this in terms of what Malcolm Knowles (whose work dovetails very nicely with Deci’s work around motivation) characterizes as relevance for the adult lifelong learner. He also points out that as a person matures the motivation to learn is internal.
Adults are typically more responsive to internal motivators (job satisfaction, self-esteem, quality of life, etc.) than external motivators (promotions, higher salaries, etc.) – see our related blog post, Andragogy – the Rub.
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation
[09:50] – Extrinsic control comes from outside sources such as money, promotion, praise (note this can be tricky), a CEU or badge earned.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within yourself such as with satisfaction of a job well done or something well learned. One of the most interesting findings of Deci’s work and that of his colleagues is that extrinsic motivation isn’t simply less effective than intrinsic motivation but that extrinsic motivation can erode intrinsic motivation.
So we have to be careful about how we’re using praise or – to the extent that we’re going to promote the fact that this learning opportunity comes with CE or a micro badge, for example – that we’re careful to balance that with also appealing to what intrinsic motivation may be there for the learner.
[13:40] – Example from Deci: Incentivizing students with money to solve puzzles actually made them less interested in working on them after being paid; meanwhile, another group of students who hadn’t been offered moneyworked on the puzzles longer and with more interest.
Example from our life: our son loves to read, but hates reading logs—has said the logs ruin the reading. This does have to be balanced though because there are practical considerations sometimes—for example, we’re about to run a survey and we have to decide if we’re going to offer an incentive.
Of course we’d like people to participate because they think it’s valuable but we also just need people to complete the survey, so sometimes extrinsic motivation may be necessary.
A quote from Deci’s book:
There is an aspect of intrinsic motivation that sets it quite apart from extrinsic control….It is an aspect that is almost spiritual. It has to do with life itself: It is vitality, dedication, transcendence. It is what one experiences at those time that Robert Henri called ‘more than ordinary moments of existence.
And we can relate that to what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow.
One of the points Deci is making by calling it spiritual is that the act itself is it’s own justification—so it’s not for the purpose of anything.
This brings us to the conclusion that with learning – that’s freely entered into by the learner who is truly intrinsically motivated – is worthwhile just for itself, regardless of what comes from it. This is such an important insight because in the learning business we tend to get so focused on the ROI/outcome.
We can’t ignore this but it’s really important that learning doesn’t have to be the means to end, but rather just an end itself.
Motivation and Learning
[17:34] – We’ve written about Deci and motivation in the past but the first time we really started speaking about it was at Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD) 2018 in regards to the idea of checkbox learning (people engaging in education just to “check the box”).
Learning leaders are obviously really concerned about this because we don’t want people to just be checking a box, we want them to be truly engaged. There’s no magic button to make this happen but you have to understand the key ideas behind motivation to figure out how to bring them out in a learning experience.
Motivation intersects with learning at three points:
- When a decision is made to engage in a learning experience (e.g., the decision to buy a course or register for a conference or to devote time to self-study). Here motivation can impact whether the individual decides to learn, what she decides to learn, and which option she chooses from an array of options. Note there’s a clear connection here between education and marketing because you have to understand the motivation of the learner.
- During the learning experience itself. Here motivation determines how much attention the learner gives to the experience, how invested she is in understanding what’s being taught, and in engaging wholeheartedly in the activities.
- Applying the learning. Here motivation impacts how well what’s been learned will be applied on the job, in the real world—or whether that learning will be applied at all. This gets into the idea of impact and whether you’re going to move the dial with the learning that you’re offering (see our related episode, One Word: Impact).
We’ve all experienced where we get pumped up about ideas from a conference but then get back to real life and the motivation fades away. The motivation may still be latent but we have to think as learning leaders how to bring it to the surface. At LTD 2018 we discussed practices like boosting following a learning event to increase motivation.
What Deci’s work tells us is that the more choices and decisions at each of those three points—the decision to engage in learning, the participation in a learning experience, and the application of the learning—the more we as learning business professionals, we who provide learning opportunities to adult lifelong learners, the more we can create conditions that foster intrinsic motivation, the more effective learning will be.
That means the impact will be greater. And the more likely we are to move the needle for the individual and in the field, profession, or industry at large.
So we need to focus on finding that balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, tilting more towards intrinsic.
There has to be a balance with choice as well because too much choice can also be bad.
The real challenge for us as learning leaders is to figure out how to set context, curate,and to frame things in a way that the learner has choices but they are rational and relevant—and also in a context where they feel like they have control without being overwhelmed.
[24:39] – The other trick is that we can’t intrinsically motivate others. Us as an outside force, trying to make someone intrinsically think something else is an oxymoron—and impossible. So what we have to do is create conditions that foster intrinsic motivation.
Luckily, Deci gives some guidance for what it looks like to foster intrinsic motivation.
First, let’s note that as learning leaders we are in one-up positions, same as teachers vis-à-vis students, managers/bosses vis-à-vis their reports, or parents vis-à-vis their kids.
What Deci looked at in his research was what people in these one-up positions can do to help foster or create that intrinsic motivation in the people in that one-down position. He talks about the distinction between controlling behaviors and what he calls autonomy supportive behaviors.
Autonomy support means to relate to others—our children, students, and employees—as human beings, as active agents who are worthy of support, rather than as objects to be manipulated for our own gratification. That means taking their perspective and seeing the world from their point of view as we relate to them.
Of course, autonomy support may require more work, but then, as socializing agents, that is our responsibility. For us to expect responsibility from others, we must accept our own responsibility as the agents of their socialization.
What autonomy support might look like (based on Deci’s research):
- Provide rationale. Why does the learner need to learn this?
- Acknowledge that people might not want to do what they’re being asked to do. While we love to learn, there’re also downsides. If nothing else, it’s a demand on time and can thereby create stress at work, at home, or both.
- Invite rather than demand. Use language and a style that acknowledge the learner has a choice.
[29:44] – Wrap-Up
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[32:09] – Sign off
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