How to Energize Yourself and Others to Stay on the Edge

The popular understanding of motivation tells us that to sustain our energy while taking the risk of breaking with the herd and to pick ourselves up from failure, we must be driven primarily by passion for the work we’re doing, or as psychologists say, we must be intrinsically motivated.

This notion doesn’t come out of nowhere. Teresa Amabile shook the world of creativity research by demonstrating how children lose their creative edge when offered a reward for their work. The London School of Economics studied 51 companies using pay-for-performance plans and found that these bonuses actually decreased employee effectiveness. But can we really expect to achieve a state of pure intrinsic motivation without quitting our jobs and heading for the Himalayas?

Yes, there are times when a focus on rewards can be absolutely deadly. But there are smart ways to use intrinsic and extrinsic motivation together to amplify the energy and commitment required to keep ourselves in the demanding zone of challenge and creativity.

Researchers have concluded that when offered rewards in ways that make us feel manipulated, coerced or controlled — which is how our bosses and society tend to impose extrinsic motivators — we lose motivation. We feel like pawns in someone else’s game and give up or act in counterproductive ways.

But when we understand that the two types of motivation and rewards are offered in an upfront way that doesn’t feel manipulative, we can make choices about how we respond to rewards. We come to treat them as fun, enjoyable bonuses rather than tools of control. Thus, the external rewards only serve to increase our intrinsic drive.

If we’re smart and have established a base of love for what we do, we can use the desire for money, esteem, status or freedom in just the right way to boost motivation.

Intuit, the financial software giant, uses what it calls an “Unstructured Time” reward for top innovators. If you perform at a high level, you’ll get significant chunks of time to explore and play wherever your passions lead.

Why We Need to Love the Challenges We Face

Every day people get stuck in the face of new and critically important challenges. All too often, they lose their drive to succeed and settle for the mediocre. They fall back on the familiar rather than take the risks needed for success. Why is that?

Psychological science tells us not simply that a healthy dose of intrinsic motivation is important but where intrinsic motivation actually springs from. And it provides clues for how we might imbue any team’s work with focus, energy and love of the process.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “flow” to describe the psychological state we enter when the conditions of high challenge and high skill emerge. He has shown that when the level of challenge just barely exceeds the level of skill, this lays the groundwork for producing a state of heightened focus, creativity and determination.

If we add to this mix clear goals and the ability to get consistent feedback on our progress, Csikszentmihalyi has demonstrated, flow consistently emerges. Despite exertion and hard work, people in flow feel a sense of love for the task they are involved in and are far more likely to invent novel and useful solutions. Flow is a key source of intrinsic motivation.

Throughout the act of creation, we can achieve and stay in flow by checking in regularly to assess our answers to these three questions:

• Do I (or we) know what success really looks like? Flow theory asks us to take the time to be very specific about what our targets are and how we’ll know we’re achieving them.

• Can we get regular feedback to know if we’re making progress? If we receive feedback with a sense of unattached curiosity (positive feedback is a great sign we’re making progress; negative feedback is a great chance to learn), we’re increasing our chances to create flow.

• Do we have the skills to match this challenge? It makes sense to do the equivalent of an equipment check as we set off on our journey. We can begin by mapping out the phases of a project from first conception to execution and refinement. For each phase, or even for each necessary task, do we believe we have the specific skills we need? Or will the challenge be too much of a stretch in spots? If we can identify those places ahead of time, we can plan for them

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