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Thinking differently about motivation

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Motivation and engagement

Management consultant Rob Robson discusses how viewing motivation in a different light can lead to a happy, engaged workforce and deliver positive results for the business.


Employee motivation has always been something of a holy grail: incredibly powerful but somehow elusive. Many frameworks have been employed over the years in the quest to find it, but none have its essence in its entirety or provided consistent results.

I would like to draw your attention to a powerful framework called ‘reversal theory’, and rather than setting out the theory in detail, I would like to share with you some of the lessons that I have learned from it and hope to make you think differently about motivation.

You may be thinking ‘why do I need another theory?’, or even ‘but I don’t do theory’; however, think about these questions:

  • What if you had access to a framework that applied not only to individual performance, but also helped improve interpersonal relationships and team dynamics?

  • What if that theory also applied to climate, culture and leadership?

  • What if that framework could highlight potential drivers of, and barriers to, change; help uncover creativity and innovation; and improve customer service?

  • What if it could help put rational, emotional and political influences ‘on the same page’; and help make sense of the fast-changing, complex and even paradoxical challenges of managing today’s businesses?

  • What if it provided new answers to old, and seemingly unsolvable, people issues?

Since its roots in the late 1970s, reversal theory has emerged as a framework that can help in all of these areas.

“Although we can learn to pick up the signals, we will never get it right all of the time. Listen to what people have to say, and you’ll find out what a situation means to them.”

The theory in a nutshell

In reversal theory, there are eight ‘motivational states’, organised in four oppositional pairs (like on/off switches), which influence our emotional experience and, ultimately, our behaviour.

At any time, four motivational states are in play, but one or two will have greater influence than the others. Movement between states (a ‘reversal’ is the switch between two states within a pair) is constant and instantaneous; a given person may also have a tendency to spend more time in one state rather than the other in each pair (dominance).

The eight states (and what we value when we are in them), in their pairs, are:

  • Serious (achievement) and playful (enjoyment)

  • Conforming (fitting in) and rebellious (freedom)

  • Mastery (power and control) and sympathy (caring)

  • Self oriented (for me) and other oriented (for others)

Some lessons from reversal theory

When it comes to motivation, what you see is not what you get.

If you talk to fans of a sports team that is on a losing streak, you will often hear how little passion the team showed, and how the players didn’t care. They are judging the motivation of the players based on their performance. Just as we can be cruel to be kind, the unresponsive employee may not care but they may equally be paralysed by fear.

Although we can learn to pick up the signals, we will never get it right all of the time. Listen to what people have to say, and you’ll find out what a situation means to them.

Focus less on ‘how motivated are my people?’ and more on ‘how are my people motivated?’

Motivation is about meaning – and most certainly not just about being more ‘fired up’. Some of the more destructive influences at work, such as anger, anxiety and stress come from high levels of drive or energy. Some of the more constructive forces are based on calm, detached analysis.

The surgeon who is highly motivated to save lives must operate with a calm detachment. The firefighter who has to deal with real danger in emergency situations also has to manage long hours of inactivity, and the city trader who gets carried away on the trading floor is likely to make poor decisions. Sometimes ‘less is more’.

Think about ‘engaging’ rather than ‘motivating’.

Therefore, the challenge (for leaders) is not to add the magical ingredient of motivation, but to create the right conditions for employees to satisfy – or engage – the full range of motivational states. Indeed, research has also shown that people are happier, more effective and more satisfied when they can do so. ‘Motivational richness’ is the term used for this diversity.

“One of the reasons that so many organisations fail to effectively engage their employees is that they focus their effort on minds more than hearts.”

So, does your organisation encourage: enjoyment as well as achievement? Freedom as well as fitting in? Caring, as well as control and competence? Looking out for others as well as one’s self?

One of the reasons that so many organisations fail to effectively engage their employees is that they focus their effort on minds more than hearts. It won’t be news to anyone reading this that both are important, but the non-rational domain is not easy to access, and organisations don’t tend to do difficult, when it comes to people.

I have found that because particular emotions are related to particular motivational state combinations, reversal theory provides the analytical power to really get under the skin of an issue, and find out what employees really care about.

Don’t get caught in time

Contrary to the trait theories of personality that still dominate in management, people are inconsistent and their motivations are not set in stone. Although first impressions count, they are often quite wrong. All too often managers will write off an employee as disinterested or difficult, based on one particular situation or incident.

Final thoughts and resources

Reversal theory is, on one level, a very simple theory that managers relate to very quickly, and on another, a complex framework that offers a great deal of explanatory power to the practitioner who is prepared to invest time and effort in it.

Once you become familiar with it, you will start to see reversals all over the place, and the states might well become part of your everyday vocabulary.

There are a number of reversal theory-based tools that can be used in organisational development: Apter International certify individuals in the use of the Apter Motivational Styles Profile, The Apter Leadership Profiling System and the Apter Change Agent Profile.

The Reversal Theory Society promotes the development of the theory and academic research, hosting a conference every two years, and their website provides a number of useful articles as well as a full list of approximately 500 academic articles and books.


Rob Robson is a member of HR Zone, a management consultant and a sport psychologist.

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