Understanding the Science of Motivation for Leading with Inspiration and Purpose

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How do we lead with inspiration and purpose? It’s a good question and every leader’s struggle.

You want your people to share your vision and enthusiasm of pursuing a common goal, and you wish them to each own that purpose so that you don’t have to keep on telling them what to do.

It’s a question that is closely tied with the endeavour to build self-organized, autonomous teams.

Instructive leadership has its limits, but it is after all practical. Don’t we all have experiences where we try motivating and inspiring our people by sharing the vision and purpose of whatever that we want to get done; only to revert to breaking down the work into tasks and handing out instruction as the deadline approaches. The gap between ideal and reality, ouch.

But we all hear about these leaders that seem immune from micro-management and are great at motivating people and rallying them for the collective good. Do they even exist? Are they even real?

I know a few, and I’d like to claim as a coach I am helping many more becoming one.

So, what do these inspiring leaders do differently?

Intuitively or through learning, these leaders have a sense of what motivates people, and perhaps even more importantly, what not – what demotivates people.

In this video I’d like to share some insights from motivational psychology, and a few pointers on what it means to lead with inspiration and purpose; particularly the do’s and do not’s.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Revised Pyramid and Ladder Visual Interpretation

Okay then, briefly on motivation. Let’s use Maslo’s hierarchy of needs.

The bottom two layers are survival and safety needs; food, shelter, health needs, and personal, emotional and financial security needs, including job security.

Then comes the strong needs for belonging and esteem. Afterall, we are social beings.

Interestingly, our biology has evolved accordingly.

We have four major hormones and neurotransmitters that affect our moods and emotions. Among them, endorphins and dopamine are closely tied with our first two layers of basic needs, survival and security. Dopamine drives us to find food and other bodily pleasures, and endorphins helps us handle hardship, which ultimately keep us safe; like not feeling pain in your burning leg muscles when running away from a chasing lion.

And then we have oxytocin and serotonin. Oxytocin, known as the love hormone, gives us a lasting feeling of calm and safety when being with people we feel we can trust. It is directly associated with our need for belonging.

Serotonin is known as the leadership chemical. When you feel a sense of pride, it’s serotonin’s doing. It is a neurotransmitter, or a messenger chemical, that regulates the many social functions in us. It boosts our self-confidence and hooks us on to serving others through a complex reward system of feeling joy from gaining attention, respect and recognition.

Then we have the higher order needs that sit on top of these first four layers. Among those who are generally satisfied and less distracted with these basic and mid-level of needs, some develop an emerging need to realize their full potential and a craving to become the best version of themselves. Maslo called this state of need “self-actualization.” It’s about personal mastery and pursuing audacious goals. It’s that feeling of pushing the envelope, raising the bar.

Now, thanks to the ubiquitous pyramid visual, a common misconception is that Maslo’s hierarchy of needs ends with self-actualization at the top. In his later years, Maslow came to realize that we have a need for “self-transcendence,” beyond self-actualization. In the realm of altruism and spirituality, self-transcendence is a state where we are motivated to do good for a higher order beyond ourselves. I find meaning in what I do, and while I can’t really grasp what it is, I feel I contribute to the greater good of humanity and therefore I pursue my path; I believe it’s this kind of motivation that Maslow suggests as self-transcendence.

Again, basic survival needs, safety and security, sense of belonging, self-esteem and recognition from others, self-actualization, and self-transcendence. This is what gets us going, what motivates us.

cognitive dissonance and agency

Okay, now let’s switch gears. Why is it important for us to be aware of all of this? Combine motivational theory with two more important psychological phenomena called “cognitive dissonance,” and the concept of “agency,” and it will start to make all sense.

When you see, hear or are communicated something that goes against your values, beliefs and feelings, we feel uncomfortable, tense and stressed, right? That squeamish feeling, that’s cognitive dissonance.

Meanwhile, the concept of agency is a little bit confusing because in commercial terms an agent is someone that provides a service on behalf of someone else. But in this case, in social science and psychology terms, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. So it’s about us, our own agency. We would never want to give up control over our own choices and actions, right? That’s agency.

So, when our agency is violated, cognitive dissonance occurs. When somebody comes up and orders a task against our liking, or worse against our will, we loath and resist. Put it simply, we only want to do what is congruent with our feelings.

But in life, when we work together, we need to share the burden of challenges, right? If we allow people to refuse work they don’t want to do, who’s going to do the hard labour?

This is where understanding motivational theory comes into the picture. Beyond our basic survival and safety needs, we are socially motivated, and we have a natural desire to help each other. We find joy in sharing the weight of work if we know our contribution is going to be appreciated. We find joy in taking up difficult work and becoming a trail blazer, so that others can follow.

Now back to leading with inspiration and purpose. The do’s and do not’s.

The Oxford dictionary definition of “inspiration” is a “process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative.” As a leader, you want your team members to buy-in to your vision, and you want them to get excited and enthusiastic about working together towards a common goal; not just because you ask them to, but because you want they themselves find purpose and mission in doing so. Nothing wrong with a genuine desire like this so long as it’s in good intent, so let’s make it happen.

Now that you know motivation theory, cognitive dissonance and agency, you understand that first, you cannot make people do anything that will threaten their basic survival and safety needs. So of course, no slave work, and everyone needs to be treated fair and humane. No more “Just do it,” “Because I tell you so,” okay?

Next, you’d want to use every opportunity interacting with your team members to let them know your appreciation for them as a valuable member of the team. If the only time that you properly speak with your team members is when you have something you want them to do, that’s a transactional relationship. Will your team members feel a strong sense of belonging to the team? Not as strong as if you invest your time and effort in building rapport regularly.

Aristotle’s Influence Model

If you are already familiar with Aristotle’s influence model that I favour, this is the “ethos” stage. It’s like equity; presence, credibility, gravitas of a good leader isn’t built overnight, it’s a long process of accumulation and accrual. So, play the long game and build relationships with your people every day.

Time to sell your story to the team, stakeholders and partners? Again, go slow. Will hard-selling your pitch with facts, figures and logic, i.e. just with “logos,” cement the deal? Maybe, but most likely not. Again, remember, cognitive dissonance and agency. It’s your story, not theirs. And the more aggressively you sell it to them, the guard goes up. You’re violating your audience’s agency.

Instead, listen, empathize, i.e. use “pathos.” Ask questions, have genuine curiosity, with your whole self, try to understand your people. Their wants and needs. What motivates them? What derails them?

Have a genuine conversation where both you and whoever you are speaking to speaks at the level of aspirations. A good conversation is resonating, and you will find the right moment to share your vision, dream and likewise theirs too. That moment is “kairos.”

At that point, invite the person to join you on your endeavour. There’s a good chance your counterpart will exclaim “I was hoping you would do so, count me in!” Because they’re already sold; there’s little or no cognitive dissonance because you’ve invested your time in letting them understand your story at their pace, and in their own language. And they themselves made the choice to follow you; they retained their agency.

Sounds all good, right? But does this all work? I hope so, but at least for me, it’s the only way I know how to engage and enrol people into my own endeavours as a serial entrepreneur. And so far, it’s working wonders. I am blessed with so many amazing people I work together, for example my tribe of coaches at my coaching business Agile Organization Development, they give me so much energy everyday.

The world needs more inspirational and purpose driven leaders. If you are watching this video till this end, I can tell that you’re already one. I hope my tips and hints today will be helpful in furthering your influence.

Thanks for watching.