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Motivation: A Requirement for Success

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Anthony Buller
July 14, 2017

Let me be the Mayor of Obviousville and say motivation is a requirement for success. Of the three variables in the formula I’m presenting about what makes a successful individual, the motivation variable may seem the simplest. But it isn’t. Motivation is hard to assess and harder to influence. I’ll write more about that, but first, let me remind you of the formula: Success = (Competence + Motivation)*Empowerment.

This is the third of four columns about this formula. The first, which introduced the concept, is available here: Successful People Equals Mission Success, Buller, PATimes, January 13, 2017. The second, about competence can be found here: Competence: A Requirement for Success, PATimes, April 14, 2017. This column addresses motivation and the last will deal with empowerment.

For this series, motivation is the total of both the inward drivers for and outward expressions of one’sS=(C+M)E level of commitment. In other words, motivation depends on the true, internal, personal influences and also how others perceive motivation. It takes a realization of both to understand how it relates to the formula, to empowerment and thus to success.

You might want to join me for a little mental exercise: first, imagine someone you consider very motivated. Does the person broadcast their commitment, openly share what is really a private drive? Does your example seek opportunity? Empowerment? Probably. Now imagine someone you consider unmotivated. What’s their problem? Does this person blame him or herself? Blame others? Imply their commitment is conditional? The people you work for, the people you lead, and the person in the mirror all share common traits related to motivation.

First, motivation is inherently controlled by the individual. A person chooses to both be committed and to communicate their motivation. A leader does not control another person’s drive, but can influence it.

Second, people may make their motivation conditional. I have heard many people say some version of, “Well, if they treated me better….” Or, “I’ll work harder if they did…” such and such. These conditions are choices made by the individual to put an external factor they do not really control in charge of their commitment.

Third, motivation and, the lack of it, can be communicated in many ways. At its simplest, a person may make fewer widgets. More complexly, a person may elect to not contribute to resolving a workplace challenge. Most suffering from low motivation communicate it. Most enjoying high motivation communicate it.

For individuals, the key questions for self reflection include: Am I motivated? Do I avoid placing conditions on circumstances or others as an excuse to not be motivated? Do I communicate positive motivation? If ‘yes’ to all three of these, congratulations. It’s much more likely that you’ll be empowered. And it’s much more likely that you’ll be successful.

People in the workplace automatically judge and weigh others’ motivation against their own. Leaders especially are called upon to assess employee motivation. But accurately assessing another is an area ripe with failure. Though most people communicate their level of commitment, what is being communicated can vary widely from the truth. Identifying if a person’s motivation is conditional is difficult at times. Deciding when to meet conditions or require performance in the absence of motivation is hard. And finally, influencing a person’s motivation in the most effective way is tough as well.

With both the variables of competence and motivation, the person primarily owns the responsibility. But the leader can influence both these variables. The ways to motivate staff are many, but I’d argue that understanding how motivation relates to the success formula is a first step in understanding the dynamics of competence, motivation and empowerment. If you are a leader who wants to empower employees then understand:

  • You can influence, not control another person’s motivation
  • You can be wrong in your assessment of a person’s commitment
  • You can choose which conditions to meet and which not to meet if employees are conditionally motivated
  • Respectful and candid conversations about your perceptions of employee motivation can be productive

If this column had to have only one takeaway for leaders it would be this: you probably already avoid empowering the unmotivated, but what if motivation is conditional on empowerment?

Do you see the rub? Do you like to empower the apparently unmotivated? Do you recognize that a little empowerment might be just what is needed to motivate a person? Sometimes the risk is worth it and empowering a person grows their motivation.

This isn’t easy stuff. We aren’t in Obviousville. But the leaders of public organizations know how important it is to help individuals be successful. The variables to that are competence, motivation, and empowerment. For motivation, the leader should be careful to: (1) assess it accurately, (2) work to influence it and (3) recognize that sometimes a person’s motivation is conditional on empowerment.


Author: Anthony Buller has a decade of experience with the federal government and can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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