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Ice Cream, Audits, and Intrinsic Motivation

Posted on August 5, 2016

So much of the work we do in the helping professions requires change: Changes in policy, in cultural norms, in families, and in individuals. But change is ridiculously hard, which you know since you read Matt’s blog and all of his insight into the brain! We also know how hard change is from our personal experiences, and because we stand beside people who are attempting to change, or are forced into change, every day.

The thing is, our nation, communities, and many of our workplaces, our services, and even our loved ones are stuck in a 20th century understanding of the very life force that powers change: motivation. What do you think of when you hear the word? Maybe an incentive program to get clients to attend an appointment? Offering ice cream to a kid if they complete their homework? Maybe you think of motivation in relation to your work: How do I get these service plans done before our next grantor audit? So much of our world attempts to change and move us through one iteration after another of motivational schemes based on carrots and sticks (ice cream and audits). These are “If, Then” constructs. Yet the behavioral sciences have documented over and over that using extrinsic motivation only works in very narrowly prescribed situations. This science isn’t new. Some of the studies on this are from the 1940s. Our practices and understanding as a culture, do not line up with the science!

The problem with carrot and stick approaches (also called extrinsic motivation) is that it assumes I can “give” a person motivation. And if you dig a bit deeper, it is about control over another person. Motivation isn’t something we give to another. It isn’t about compliance, it is about engagement. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, lays out the research mentioned above, the research behind a scientifically grounded understanding of motivation. Motivation that is intrinsic to a person is rooted in three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • Autonomy, in this context, means a sense of self-directedness (in Pink’s use of the word, it does not mean independence…but that is a rabbit hole for a different blog).
  • Mastery, for Pink, doesn’t mean you can actually ever master something completely. It is the desire to get better and better at something that you find meaningful. It means facing a task that is challenging, but not too challenging. Mastery is grounded in maintaining a growth mindset – success is based in effort, not innate ability. (You can read more about fixed and growth mindsets in a series of 3 blog posts, starting with this one from May 20th)
  • Purpose may seem sort of obvious for those of us working in the helping professions. It is the foundation for why we choose this work. Our motivation is rooted in the desire to be in service to others and a part of something larger.

These three characteristics of intrinsic motivation allow for the creativity and energy needed to approach our work, and to approach change. The problem isn’t just that Motivation based in the old carrot and stick construct doesn’t work. Pink tells us, and the science actually documents, that it can do real harm. Extrinsic motivators can cause people to act unethically, take shortcuts, and think in narrow and short-term ways. They also undermine our own internal motivation. In experiment after experiment, if a person is paid to do something, research shows they lose creativity and problem-solving ability, and it undermines a person’s desire to give back or do good.

A rainbow colored ice cream cone has dropped upside down on the sidewalk on a summer day

So what does this mean? How do we re-focus our helping professions on programs and workplaces based in the science of intrinsic motivation? What do treatment plans and service plans actually mean in this context? Can we use them in ways that are rooted in helping clients be self-directed? Can we help clients experience a sense of mastery and skills-building as a part of our planning processes and our programs? Can we engage clients in a way that connects them to their own values and a larger sense of purpose?

How about with our staff? Can we let go of “bean counting” how many treatment plans are complete and move toward something that is rooted in helping staff approach their work with creativity, rooted in building skills and engagement? We can’t get rid of paperwork, but can we build a workforce that has the training and support they need to do the highly complex work of mining for the gold of our clients’ motivation?

Learning to recognize the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is a first step. Motivational Interviewing (MI) skills can also certainly help with this. MI is rooted in the concept of using a person’s own intrinsic motivation. Training staff in MI is important, but practicing with a team that is always working to improve and creatively implement the tools of MI is the way toward mastery!

Observe your world, programs, clients, family, and yourself today. Watch for extrinsic verses intrinsic motivation, and think about ways to build more self-direction, skill, and purpose into your work and life. And if you are really interested, read Daniel Pink’s book, Drive. You may also be interested in Pink’s Ted Talk that briefly reviews the science.

We’d love to hear your thoughts and observations. Share your experiences with extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in the comments – we look forward to hearing them!

2 responses to “Ice Cream, Audits, and Intrinsic Motivation”

  1. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Like the river that we were asked to draw in the trauma-informed training workshop at the conference of the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, in Portland, OR, in June, influences and motivations come from many sources, from many creeks, as it were. Growth may come in increments. When I learned the term “vital interests,” it shaped my motivation and actions. The realization of one’s vital interests will often mold behavior, whether on the personal level, or on the national. Confronted with adversaries, what does one do? And how does one act while adhering to other values and motivating factors? Religious beliefs, family heritage, formal education, informal knowledge all come into play. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be influential. The former can be good, sometimes; the latter of primary importance. Vital interests meant, in my situation, that I had to home-school myself–even though I didn’t have a home and never thought to use that term. Self-training had to be discreet and as good as I could manage. Motivation is sometimes sparked by an unknown quantity, then comes an impulse of force. A small basketball player may happen to have insight on how he or she may have influence on the court, despite the relative and ostensible handicap, and finds greatness. The pursuit may lead, as I’ve found, to serendipity, assets discovered, gifts or skills only slowly honed. There may an element of mystery in the process; and, for some who so believe, one of Divine will or intervention. Increments and patience and work and study strengthen the individual. Motivation is not always easy to surmise.

  2. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Five August is the birthday of philosopher Nicolas de Malebranche, of France (1638-1715). I recognize him, here, hoping that his memory and work in search of truth is revived in the world. He was a prolific proponent of Faith and Reason.

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