Motivation and Self Determination Theory

Motivation and Self Determination Theory


Like clockwork every morning our son, Clark, wakes up and yells, "daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy" then pulls my fingers and demands, "play?".  Our two-year-old doesn't seem to care about the rewards or time of day (collective parental sigh). He wants to play. He is motivated to play with a consistent enthusiasm every day.  As a parent I realize that our son's motivation for exploratory play is part of childhood mental development connected with attachment theory.  Yet, I am continually impressed with how he plays with his school bus every morning with an amnesia like sense of genuine new discovery. 

The academic study of motivation has cast a more than 30 year shadow of research.  Generations of scientists and regular folk alike continue to be intrigued with the factors that lead each of us to be our 'best selves'.  How do social settings engender effort, commitment and growth? How does one avoid their 'worst selves', something like a listless passivity that pleads for next Saturday when Monday arrives.  During my college days our beloved strength coach would often raise the question, "are you going to get better or just get through?"  A simple, yet pointed question wrapped in layer upon layer of biological and social factors.

The academically validated response to these questions is Self - Determination Theory (STD).  In broad generalizations, STD argues that three categories are critically correlated with increased intrinsic motivation; competence, relatedness, and autonomy.  In other words, the 'good', child like motivation that leads to increased feelings of well being will involve a sense that we know what we are doing usually coupled with some form of positive feedback, that our work matters to our larger social context, and that we have a feeling of self-determined volition about completing the tasks at hand.  We aren't being coerced to do our work, but rather have some level of choice in the matter.  

Extrinsic motivation, although not diabolically opposed, tends to be more intimidating in nature.  Unlike intrinsic motivation that values completing an activity for the joy of the activity itself, extrinsic motivation focuses on completing an activity for a separable outcome. The pressures of extrinsic motivation are usually placed by outside parties, like managers and teachers.  While some extrinsic motivating factors may integrate with our intrinsic drivers, extrinsic motivation often exist in social environments that preclude flourishing where outcomes are driven by outside fear and anxiety.  For example, the narrative of complete this project or you're fired would be a unhealthy form of extrinsic motivation.  

As in most cases you may ask yourself, 'why does it matter'.  From an emotional self awareness perspective it matters what lies at our core. How we approach problems, tasks, and daily activities are informed by what motivates us.  The only way to illicit continued growth is to understand where we are.  

Each time a new shift of firefighters comes on duty they check their apparatus to make sure everything is running properly.  Raising the ladder, turning on the lights, and starting the pump all ensure that that team's equipment is fully functioning when they receive the next emergency call. 

Consider performing your own quick and simple diagnostic daily assessment (or as I like to say, 'motivation equipment checklist'):  

  1. Are you motivated today?
  2. If yes, what tasks are you motivated to complete and why?
  3. If no, what is the most obvious barrier that comes to mind inhibiting your motivation?
  4. If there anyway to more fully integrate your eternal pressures and intrinsic drive?

This simple, literally 4 minute exercise, will serve to make you more fully aware of where you're going and how that movement aligns with your internal motivation.  Of the course of several weeks track what motivates you.  Is it consistent?  Is it ever changing?  Strive to integrate and align.  Even situations that appear completely full of extrinsic pressures may have opportunities that serve your intrinsic motivations and goals. 



Momentum is a powerful tool.  In the arsenal of techniques that reprogram our brain, momentum is a low-cost high-impact solution. Discussed by executive coaches and process consultants, momentum is a re-patterning method that either reinforces or alters behavioral patterns.

Loosely defined, momentum is the reason behind why tackling a small task consistently leads to the ability to accomplish a larger goal. However, the flip side to accomplishment is becoming mired in an undesirable habit.  Consistently reinforcing a negative behavior will lead into a downward spiral away from a positive outcome. 

Why? Put simplistically, our brains prefer routine to upheaval and order rather than chaos.  As a student of theology, a characteristic that both eastern and western religious traditions adopt with regularity is the theme of order.  Whether it be through creation stories or complex narratives, stability in a trusted framework is valued.  

Emotions are also subject to the powers of momentum.  Ever start off on a Monday feeling unenthusiastic and by Friday wished you'd taken the week off?  I'm guessing that's happened.  Or how about the converse, ever started off with a positive attitude on a Monday, and despite obstacles, had it carry you to unexpected benefits during the week?  

How do we reinforce/break this emotional cycle?  Probably more importantly, how do you get out of the confined space of a negative experience?  

One approach that seems to work is to break down complex negative thoughts.  For example, if emailing that client went poorly on Monday then you might feel anxious about emailing a different client on Tuesday.  This worry is an outgrowth of a perceived similar situation, Monday's email.  However, the two scenarios while related, are more different than we care to admit.  The clients are unique, we are in a new state of mind, and perhaps most importantly there is no information to forecast the second email will go poorly.  The worry isn't based in fact, its based in perceived routine. 

To combat this mental incongruence, instead of jumping into the Tuesday client email right away focus on accomplishing small positive tasks.  Work on that report that will be due next week, complete an errand on the way to or from the office, work on that upcoming presentation, or respond to emails that have come in the night before. By focusing on the small tasks directly in front of us, we can limit the ability for our mind to make unequal assumptions and block one semi-related experience on top of another.  Put another way, one can force our mind to remember positive experiences.    

The former Notre Dame football coach turned motivational speaker Lou Holtz often talked about the acronym WIN.  WHAT'S. IMPORTANT. NOW.  Although it may seem trivial, the expression is couched in a proven psychological approach.  Allow your mind to be resilient by not worrying or focusing on another negative end result.  Interrupt an assumed thought pattern by focusing on small, easily finished tasks.  Once you are able to reconfigure your brain to focus on the positive value occurring directly in front of you, the negative thought will be distracted from taking hold. 

Our minds are powerful machines capable of a strong negativity bias and equally deterministic positive resilience.  If we are able to take small steps toward resilience our mind will carry the rest.     


'Positive' Conflict - Aggression and Reconciliation

'Positive' Conflict - Aggression and Reconciliation

Conflict is a 'hot' topic trending among researchers and businesses. There is a large body of existing resources which discuss tactics for minimizing conflict among teams and between individuals.  Yet, at least a portion of these materials characterizes conflict as the root cause of disharmony, something to be avoided at all costs. 

A few truths about conflict:

  1. Conflict isn't new.
  2. Conflict isn't bad.
  3. Conflict isn't a problem.  
  4. Conflict isn't preventable.
  5. Conflict is natural.
  6. Conflict is inevitable.
  7. Conflict is beneficial.
  8. Conflict is communication.

Conflict gets a bad wrap because of the responses that we have to it.  Each of us has a choice about how we respond.  Conflict becomes harmful to ourselves and our relationships when we decide to use destructive tools like aggression and condescension rather than reconciliation and understanding.   

Wait, I'm one step ahead of you.  I bet you're thinking something like, "Chris, aggression is also natural.  It happens in business and at home.  I have teenagers..."

Or what about, "Chris, aggression as a conflict response is unavoidable.  When I get frustrated I get angry and aggressive. Don't you?"

One last time, "Chris, aggression is how we win."

I see where you're going and it's tempting, but those three above statements hinge on two traditional views of relationship.

  1. We don't need each other.
  2. There is is no cost in being a conflict aggressor. 

Frans B.M. de Waal has long studied relationships among primates.  Through his research, De Waal built out the notion of a 'post-conflict attraction hypothesis'.  Basically, and I'm grossly oversimplifying here, De Waal noticed that primates sought to reconcile with each other after aggressive conflicts. Why?

Primarily, because for the primates studied non-reconciliation was too costly.  Like us, primates are social beings and non-reconciled aggression led to upheaval in the social order.  Since De Waal's initial research others have studied various mammal groups and found that a form of 'post-aggression' reconciliation is at work.

Alright, but so what? Even though we are descended from primates, we've evolved and our situations aren't the same. Sort of, we do live differently, but the lessons still apply. A few quick points:

First, in humans, most aggressive behavior involves individuals with whom we have an ongoing shared experience with.  We're actually more aggressive with those whom we've had a previously/ongoing relationship.

Second, aggression as a response to conflict actually does have negative consequences for the aggressor. In sum, responding with aggression increases an individual's level of anxiety and can erode trust, particularly among individuals on a team. 

Third, the more anxiety is introduced into a situation the greater some compensating approach will need to be used.  If people in a team feel more anxious because a team member is being aggressive, then a spiral begins to occur where the team needs more reassurance that cooperation and trust exist. Aggression sucks time and emotional energy from highly functioning dynamics.

Things to keep in mind about a conflict situation to prevent yourself from getting a ticket on the runaway aggression train:

  1. Aggression is only one of a range of responses to conflict.  There are other alternatives.
  2. Every relationship is costly.  Costly to maintain and costly to lose.  No relationship is inexpensive.  Cheapening the value of relationships denies optimal resolution.
  3. Reconciliation and cooperation are skills that can be taught.  Even if you don't do it you can learn.
  4. Designate a team member to be a point person for cooperation on your team.  At least have one go-to person who can model positive conflict responses.
  5. Recognize other individual's dignity and identity.  Repurpose the personalization of your aggression in a humanizing way.
  6. It's a myth that aggression is the most successful way to respond to conflict. Although you may get your way, be wary about what has been lost in that endeavor.


Memory - Negativity Bias

Memory - Negativity Bias

Although I am not a neurobiologist or evolutionary psychologist, I know that memories are valuable.  The pathways for forming and recalling memories depend, at least a portion, on the significance of the event seeking to be recalled.  Put another way, the more traumatic the event the more likely we will be able to recall it in memory.  You may not remember every walk in the park, but if during one walk you came face to face with a rattlesnake I'd bet you'd be able to remember that stroll!

For good reason.  Our brains are wired to perceive, analyze, and process threats.  Scientists often refer to the role amygdala play in this prioritization. These tiny pieces of grey matter living in our brain use more than half of their energy intercepting perceived threats.  In fact, the author Dan Goldman used the phrase an 'amygdala hijack' to describe overwhelming disproportionate emotional responses to perceived fear inducing situations. "I was overcome by fear".  

When you think about it from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense.  We had to remember where the tiger, snake, or other large predator lived for the sake of our own survival.  Thankfully, the days of encountering those types of threats at your desk or in the conference room are far behind us, but our amygdala haven't completely received the memo.  Our brains sill seek to remember threats and focus intently on fear rather than emphasize joy or positive feelings.

So what?

A fair point.  The crux of the matter is this.  If we are hard wired to prioritize the recollection of fear or thought of another way, the worst of our surroundings, it takes an act of will to rewire our brain to re-prioritize positive experiences.  Left to our own devices our brains would have us quickly recall the political shenanigans of a co-worker around promotion time last year before we recalled how six months ago that same person came to our aid when a family member was ill.  Its not that our wiring is wrong, its just that we need to continually work to keep our amygdala at bay and focus on what is the positive, rather than what is exclusively the threat.

A quick (somewhat dangerous and not safe for work exercise)

Get a pen and piece of paper.  Write down the first three coworker names that come to mind.  

Next, beside their names write the first memories that come to mind about each one.

How did you do?  Endearing memories, or threat based warnings?

Moral of the story.  Don't be hijacked into remembering only the ugly of the situations you find yourself in.  Take a bit more time and trust that there may in fact be a good memory that a needs a little more effort to recall. 


Negotiating Boundaries - Work vs. Home

Negotiating Boundaries - Work vs. Home

You answer a phone call at the office from the plumber working on your kitchen sink. You leave a meeting to respond to a text from the caregiver that your child has a mild fever at daycare. Your spouse emails you about the invitation for the family gathering this weekend imploring you, for the third time, to respond.

What do these three vignettes have in common?  

First, they all involve non-work matters being dealt with at work.

Second, all three involve varying degrees of cognitive-emotional energy.  Is my child ok? Should we take her to the doctor? Is there another leak in the kitchen? How much will the repairs cost? I forgot about the reunion this weekend!

Third, each scenario involves a transition.  A movement away from one train of thought into another.

It is this transition that social scientists have coined a 'cognitive role transition'.  Research analyzing traditional boundary theory published by Smit, Maloney, Maertz Jr., and Montag-Smit studied effects of cognitive role transitions in 619 employees totaling some 4,371 transition episodes.  What these researchers found was that, somewhat unsurprisingly, cognitive role transitions between work and home impair job performance.  The more time an employee is focusing on things outside of work, the less time they are cognitively and emotionally present at work.

However, what the study also unearthed was that the most effective way to combat these transitions is a measure of integration between work and home rather than segmentation.  In essence, thoughts from outside of work are always going to seep into the cognitive 'work-space'.  Additionally, the study also determined that employees who are able to address family matters at work have a greater resilience to cognitive transitions and maintain a higher level of job performance than those employees who are restricted from doing so.  Instead of isolating family and work, which may perpetuate a thought in our mental and emotional background that grows into a worry until we get home, address it!

Practically, instead of fighting the impulse to answer that text or planning how to sneak away from one's desk to take that call, use that energy to address the issue so that one can transition from family back to work.  One of the implications of this new research is that employers should allow employees the space to be present at work and also at home.  Blurring the traditional boundary of the office as an escape from home life may prove to be more productive rather than dimish productivity.  So the next question is, how?

First, employers should check if there is the ability for employees to work from home a segment of the time they physically spend in the office.  In addition to reducing office costs, working from home allows employees to work and address personal matters in a dualistic fashion.

Second, make answering that text or checking in with a caregiver easier not harder.  Allow the space for employees to answer those matters without feeling shame from the office culture. Consider open offices or spaces where people can have personal discussions in the workspace.

Third, be flexible as a manager.  Listen to your team and find ways that allow work-family transitions to occur in alignment with team culture.   Not only will employees enjoy working more, but your team will become more cohesive. 

Rethink the traditional work - family binary.  Doing so will add value to your team. 




A classic indicator for measuring the prosperity of a society is Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  Since the early 1930's, accepted theory has held that as a society's GDP increased the wealth of its citizens improved.  Further, such increases in prosperity were hypothesized to translate into higher feelings of individual satisfaction.  In sum, the wealthier the country the happier, more fulfilled, and more content its citizens. 

Beginning in the mid-1970s some researchers began to question the correlation between measures of satisfaction and GDP, arguing that after a certain economic level, increases in wealth have a much less pronounced effect on measures of contentment.  In 2013, economist Richard Easterlin further refined this critique concluding that only relative income is linked with satisfaction.  Meaning, if overall measures of prosperity increase, but people are not able to compare their wealth relative to others then they will not be happier.  Our perception of ourselves is linked with how we view our peers.

Our 2016 election cycle continues to proliferate this conclusion.  In a nation with tremendous wealth relative to the rest of the world, there continue to be marked emotions of dissatisfaction and malcontent among many Americans.  Happiness, or perhaps more acutely, satisfaction are complex dynamics that involve not only feeling positive about oneself, but also functioning well in jobs, relationships, and community. 

Why is this important for organizations to consider? For several reasons:

First, it's important to recognize that employees and managers are able to think themselves into dissatisfaction even when indicators of their own performance and compensation are above-average.  Therefore, peer reviews or the review process should consider questions targeted at themes of fulfillment and purpose, not strictly project accomplishment.

Second, compensation is relative. I'm sure you've heard this one before.  If employee X realizes employee Y is making the same amount as her, then a glowing review from a manager may do little to quell feelings of frustration and regression.  One method to combat this evolution is to make the compensation process hold some transparency.

Third, thriving, or flourishing as Martin Seligman coined, is an integrative process that involves not only feeling well but also acting well.  Employers should consider striving to develop programs whose outcome is relational, rather than only quantitative.  Success is an elusive metric that must be captured by combining project accomplishment with relational value.

Fourth, wellbeing is a reality that employees have a shared responsibility to pursue.  Compensation, praise, and accolades accomplish only part of idealized wellbeing models.  Feeling positive and functioning effectively are related, but distinct operative tasks.  Employees must strive to become aware of their interpretation of their own circumstances relative to their peers.  Confronting and learning to identify one's own attitude is key to growth in all sectors of engagement.    


'Soft Skills'

'Soft Skills'

During my graduate studies, I volunteered at the local United Way on a project inventorying employable skills of job candidates. The program was impactful and had a high rate of success matching prospective job seekers with organizations seeking to hire.

Surprisingly, a few months into the program employers started contacting the office asking to scale back their involvement in the program.  Perplexed, colleagues reached out to participating companies to inquire why their appetite had waned.  It turned out that many employees, almost 90%, were doing great work, adding value and supporting the goals of their employer.  Yet, of this cohort, a portion also lacked consistency in showing up for work and communicating effectively with their managers.  It wasn't the employee's product that was the problem, rather the intervening steps in communication, image, and perception.  There was a 'soft skills' deficit.

Now, I understand the temptation to argue that 'soft skills' pertain to fixed employer/employee relationships and are not transferable across corporate cultures. However, recently published research surrounding reference feedback compiled by SkillSurvey, Inc.  determined that the three positive qualities most often mentioned by references about employees were dependability, detail orientation, and effective team communication.  Conversely, this research, which mined more than 44,000 words received on reference reporting, also concluded that the three categories most often listed for employee improvement were confidence, knowledge, and communication. 

This research spotlights the implicit value of perception in relationships (more to come in a future post).  How we perceive ourselves at work is often not aligned with how others interpret our value to the organization.  Although we may believe we are the best at performing our assigned task, which may carry truth, our manager might not believe our greatest asset is the fulfillment of our daily tasks, but rather, the process we undertake when completing tasks.  This person is responsive, likable, and communicates clearly is different than this person is the best at task X or project Y.  

I would encourage you to take 5-10mins out of your day and inventory your 'soft skills'.  If punctuality is important in your role, do you show up on time? If responsiveness is key, are you answering emails and questions in a timely manner?  Improving our soft skills can be the quickest and least expensive use of social capital when improving our value for others in the workplace. 

Leadership Foundations - Active Listening

Leadership Foundations - Active Listening

I think the saying goes something like, there’s a reason we were born with two ears and one mouth. 


Active listening is intentional, deliberate, and tiring.  It is also unapologetically a core value of a strong, secure leader.  


All day long we listen; in meetings, on calls, to direct reports, with managers. How many of you will admit to multitasking when listening?  I would venture that most, if not all of us, multitask a moderate percentage of our day, yours truly included.  And why not! In traditional business, the philosophy of multitasking is valued as an essential skill.  After all, if you have seven hours of calls and meetings each day, and you don’t want to work all night if you don’t multitask things just won’t get done.


What’s the difference between active listening and passive listening?


What does Active Listening look like:

1.     Sitting up straight (yes, we're heading back to elementary school)

2.     Making and sustaining eye contact

3.     Nodding your head or body in active response to what is being stated.


What does Active Listening sound like:

1.     Regularly checking what the other person is saying through clarifying questions

a.     What I think I hear you saying is XYZ.

b.     Could you tell me more about ABC?

c.     How did situation 123 make you feel?

2.     Resisting the one word yes/no dichotomy

a.     Questions are most purposeful when they are engaging.

3.     Not interrupting the speaker.

a.     The only way to listen is to actively pay attention without interruption

4.     Not repeating a similar story of your own

a.     Often in a conversation we fall into ‘story bricking’, answering another person's story with one of our own.  This ‘one-uping’ further silos relational interaction


What does Active Listening feel like:

1.     Uncomfortable at first. 

a.     Focusing on a colleague's story can be draining and awkward until you develop your own active listening pattern

2.     Fulfilling

a.     Listening actively allows one to enter into the narrative of a colleague and gain knowledge and respect beyond passive listening

Power of Assumption

Power of Assumption

I make dozens of assumptions every day with varying degrees of complexity. Some situational, some social, some physical, and some emotional, to name a few. The red light over the stove is lit up and the frying pan is in the sink.  I’m going to assume the stove is hot since the last time the light was red and I touched the stove I got burned. Lesson learned, I'm staying away!

Or what about this one: the mail carrier has come everyday for the last year between 3:00 and 4:00pm.  So even though I’m super excited about that new thing I ordered from Amazon or new meal coming from Blue Apron I’m not going to check the mail just yet because I assume he hasn't come early.

Assumptions are derived from our cognitive core as social mammals.  Assumptions have evolved as a survival tool to quickly categorize new situations based on past similar experiences so we don’t get burned at the stove or eaten by a tiger.  Back when we were tasked with outsmarting wild animals daily, making the right decision in a precarious new situation often made the difference between life and death.

Fast forward to the cube you share with two of your closest coworkers. After last month’s ‘re-densification,’ the fears of the hierarchy of the animal kingdom seem light years away.  It's not that all assumptions are bad. Rather, in instances where our physical survival isn’t on the line, it becomes worthwhile to check our relational and emotional assumptions with other possible outcomes before coming to a conclusion about another person. 

Paul leaned over to talk to Sam.  Guess what! Mary in operations gave me that look again today, I bet she’s unhappy with how I marked up that report.  Why doesn’t she understand that’s how the regulators need to see the data?  Enough!  The next time I talk to her I’m not backing down about these reports. I’m not taking any more attitude.

A few points about the above example (which I bet hasn’t happened to anyone before!).  First, is Paul correct? Sure, Mary may be upset about the way he formatted those reports.  Is it also possible that Mary isn’t angry at Paul at all, but instead is making that face because she got a flat tire on the way to work and was late dropping her kids off at school? Yes, that’s also a possibility.  What about if Mary is a little bit angry with Paul, but was up late last night working on another report due today and although she knows Paul’s way is correct, ran out of time and didn’t want to adhere to his formatting?  Sure, that also seems like a possibility.  Finally, what if Paul recently got new contacts that are just a little blurry and that snarky face he thinks he sees is actually an appreciative smile?  Yeah, I like that one too.

So, why is any of this important?  Well, if Paul assumes Mary is exclusively upset with him, then Paul may become defensive and have his next series of interactions with Mary for the remainder of the day, or even week, become clouded by a quest for relational vengeance bringing productivity to a halt and collaboration to an all-time low.

But what about that last example with Paul’s new contact lenses?  This points to the prime motivator of the assumption: me.  Assumptions often work to focus their energy solely on the individual making them, and not on a wider reality based in discernible fact.  If Paul doesn’t assume, and assume pessimistically, until otherwise proven that Mary is upset with him, Paul will not unnecessarily need to take a defensive, aggressive position against a false enemy.  Paul will also have the opportunity to think outside himself and his insecurities in the workplace.




1.     Write down three instances where you have made an assumption and been right.

2.     Write down three instances where you have made an assumption and been wrong.

3.     Next, write down what you assume others think of you at work.  Is it positive or negative?

4.   Write down an instance where you learned someone made an incorrect assumption about you.  How did you address that? How did that make you feel?