You can teach a salesperson to use a new customer information system, but can you teach her to be motivated to use it consistently each week? You can learn the new procedure for completing your expense reports, but can you learn how to be motivated to submit them on time?

You probably spends countless hours and money training people on the skills they need to do their jobs. Many organizations spend even more to incentivize, entice or outright bribe people to use those skills. But rarely do training organizations take advantage of compelling science to deal with the most critical determinant of whether people apply those skills: motivation.

Which begs the question: Is motivation a skill that can be taught, learned and nurtured? The answer is: It depends.

To Teach Motivation as a Skill, Consider Three Imperatives:

1. Let go of outdated theories that relegate motivation to the dark ages.

Scratch beneath the surface of leadership competencies for managing people’s motivation, and you’ll find B.F. Skinner’s detrimental carrots (incentives) and sticks (fear and punishment), McClelland’s misleading achievement motivation (based on power), or Maslow’s misinterpreted hierarchy of needs (never proven and potentially more harmful than helpful).

2. Challenge traditional beliefs that undermine the true nature of human motivation.

If you and your executives still believe that “it’s not personal; it’s just business” or that the primary purpose of business is to make money or that to obtain results, you need to hold people accountable, you are at risk of thwarting the psychological needs that must be met for people to perform and thrive at work.

3. Recognize the difference between the quantity and the quality of a person’s motivation.

When it comes to motivation, what matters most is the quality of the motivation. Motivation is the psychological energy that influences your physical energy to act. If you want to jump-start physical energy, you might eat a candy bar or drink a cup of coffee. After the sugar spike and caffeine rush, your blood sugar plummets, leaving you needing another energy fix. But when you eat a handful of almonds or a healthy breakfast, you not only generate energy, but you also create sustainable energy more conducive to high performance.

The same is true with motivation. “Junk food” motivation is fueled by rewards, incentives, power, status, fear or shame – the psychological equivalents of sugar and caffeine. You may experience an initial rush of energy, but the sub-optimal motivation you created cannot sustain the energy required to attain your goals or flourish while pursing them.

Optimal motivation is fueled by satisfying choice, connection and competence – the three psychological nutrients required for innovation, productivity, sustainable performance, and mental and physical well-being. Research shows that when people create choice, connection and competence, they generate the positive energy they need to pursue and achieve their goals and thrive.

How to Teach People to Master Their Motivation: The 3 Cs

1. Teach people to create choice.

  • When we’re burdened by sub-optimal motivation, we should ask ourselves, “What choices do I have?” Sometimes, just realizing that we have choices help us make the right one.
  • Teach proactive self-leadership skills: how to deal effectively with a micromanaging manager, clarify unclear goals, ask for feedback, be a problem-solver and negotiate for authority.
  • Initiate conversations to help people discover their own values-based reasons to act, as opposed to traditional external motivators like incentives, awards, prizes and rankings they don’t control.

2. Teach people to create connection.

  • Engage in motivation conversations to help people discover meaning in everyday goals, tasks and situations and to recognize how they contribute to something greater than themselves.
  • Create a space for people to be honest about their needs, fears and vulnerabilities, and teach them to use the phrase “I need” to ask for help when they need it.
  • Encourage people to speak up against injustice and unfairness, and teach them how to do it effectively.

3. Teach people to create competence.

  • Promote discussions about what’s been learned – not just what’s been accomplished.
  • Craft action plans for achieving goals that focus on a process for learning, not just meeting milestones.
  • Remind people to never assume competence; if they haven’t demonstrated they are able to do something, encourage them to open their mind to learning something new.

Back to the example of completing expense reports: Instead of bribing people (or yourself) with intangible or tangible rewards to submit the reports on time, imagine applying the skill of motivation.

1. Create choice.

What choices do I have? I could choose not to complete my expense reports on time, or I could choose to submit them on time. It’s my choice. Usually I procrastinate, and I hate the pressure, guilt and frustration hanging over me. One time, I chose to turn them in on time, and it felt good.

2. Create connection.

How can I bring meaning to expense reports? Submitting my expense reports on time would be helpful to Jenny. She’s in charge of collecting expenses and making sure they are billed to clients and reimbursed to me in a timely manner. When I’m late, I negatively affect her ability to do her job. I also value being a person who keeps her word. Submitting my reports on time is aligned to my values for helping others, living with integrity and being a good corporate citizen.

3. Create competence.

What can I learn from completing expense reports? I just learned how to use the foreign money converter, and it’s so much easier than it used to be! I’m sure there are other features that would make the process more efficient if I were open to learning them. Maybe I could even mentor others who are struggling.

Can you teach motivation? The answer is a resounding yes – if you move beyond outdated motivation theories and beliefs to embrace the latest science of motivation. Motivation is a skill that people can learn to apply anywhere, at any time. People can master their motivation by learning to create the choice, connection and competence required to experience optimal motivation for achieving their goals – and flourishing.

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