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Thriving at work



What enables us to thrive at work and what motivates us?  These are two very different questions and they lead us to examine what our external and internal motivations for being at work are.

We are motivated by lots of extrinsic factors such as financial reward and the esteem that friends, colleagues and our family give us as we progress at work.  These extrinsic factors are powerful motivators.  However in order to excel and thrive we need to be both externally and internally motivated.  Over the last thirty years Ryan and Deci have examined the role of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and developed their Self Determination Theory (SDT).  This area of research provides powerful insights into how to create a flourishing work culture.

About self determination theory 

SDT is a theory of motivation that aims to explain individuals’ goal-directed behavior. Motivation resides along a continuum, with intrinsic motivation on the far right, extrinsic motivation in the middle and amotivation on the far left. Intrinsic motivation is ideal; people engage in an activity because of internal factors and are therefore likely to sustain the activity for their own reasons. Extrinsic motivation is driven by external forces; it is a less preferred state than intrinsic motivation, but better than amotivation, which is a complete absence of motivation.

The critical component of the theory concerns the degree to which individuals fulfill their basic psychological needs; the more they attain these basic psychological needs, the more their behavior is self-determined. The three needs are autonomy, competence and relatedness.

SDT suggests that people are motivated to grow and change by innate psychological needs. The theory identifies three key psychological needs that are believed to be both innate and universal: the needs for competence, connectedness and autonomy. The concept of intrinsic motivation, or doing things purely for their own sake, plays an important role in self-determination theory.

The internal motivators include whether we feel a degree of autonomy within our role, whether we feel competent and whether there is opportunity for learning and growth. Our health and energy levels are also important factors in determining how engaged we are at work.  But perhaps the greatest factor in employee engagement is whether our place of work provides us with opportunities to develop positive relationships with each other.  Autonomy, competence, growth, physical wellbeing and positive relationships are key components that drive excellence and help us thrive.

Embedding the thriving principal

The next time you are trying to motivate a colleague think about the assignment from their perspective.  How can you make their assignment engaging?  Ask yourself whether the role is likely to deliver autonomy, competence, growth and positive relationships.  And think about their physical and emotional wellbeing.  Consider these things but also check in with them to see what they think!  

  • Ask them how much autonomy they desire and how much guidance and structure they need
  • Be specific in setting expected outcomes but foster an understanding that how they achieve those outcomes is down to them
  • Encourage clear, open communication – this means cutting down on needless emails and encouraging walking and talking
  • Ensure the team has regular opportunities to celebrate successes together
  • Create workspaces, which enhance task performance.  For example a flexible workplace needs quiet areas as well as fun creative spaces
  • Check in with them to ascertain whether they feel competent in the role or require further training. 
  • Ask them if the role is moving them in some way towards their medium to longer term goals
  • Strive to develop positive regard for you colleagues through positive comments and helping them identify, use and celebrate their strengths
  • Praise them for their effort and when you need to give constructive negative feedback make sure that you are very specific in your feedback
  • Engage the team in reflective listening practices.  Encourage them to come to their own solutions through posing question, which help them reflect on their experience.  People who come to their own conclusions with gentle guidance feel a greater sense of autonomy than people who are simply directed
  • Consider how the workplace can be a place that promotes physical wellbeing
  • And finally ask them if the role helps them develop positive relationships with customers, colleagues and suppliers

Organisations that embed the thriving principal tend to have a greater level of engagement of their staff and according to Gallup also tend to be the most financially successful.  The most successful organisations tend to find healthy balance between extrinsic motivation and fostering intrinsic motivation by attending to autonomy, competence, growth, wellbeing and positive relationships.

The disengaged workplace is associated with staff attrition, low morale, absenteeism, low energy, ill health, stress and short-term thinking.   Assessing employee engagement and creating the conditions to enable expression of intrinsic motivation is one of the most important roles of any manager.