Four Keys to Unlocking Motivation


Once I facilitated a ½ day workshop on leadership at the 1st Post-Doc Days at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. One of the topics we discussed was motivation, the topic researchers ask most questions about. Science is not for the faint-hearted: as one participant pointed out, about 90% of her experiments don’t work. Few days are graced with success. This explains the interest in motivation and curiosity about how to keep going in the face of adversity.

In a two-stage exercise, we explored some of their experience with motivation. In the first stage, people discussed phases where everything was going well in their research. They found words to describe that: excited, energised, at peace, sceptical, enthusiastic, motivated, positive, and calm. In the second stage, they discussed what contributed to their experiencing this state. The answers fell into one of four categories, each of which represents a key to unlocking motivation:

  • Meaning What meaning does your work provide in your life? Research demands a lot and it gives back a lot. Without the passion and curiosity, it can be hard to keep going. Leader cannot force people to find meaning in their work. However, they can remind people from time to time what the work is about, so that they can reconnect themselves to the meaning. On a day-to-day level, it’s helpful when leaders explain the importance or relevance of tasks they delegate (especially when someone might think the task “stupid”.)
  • Feedback This is meant in two senses. First, how you are progressing vs the project plan provides strong feedback from the research project about progress. Secondly, people appreciate feedback from their boss and colleagues about their progress and contributions. Therefore, it’s helpful when progress meetings about research projects concentrate not only on the science, but also take a few minutes to review progress against the plan. In an earlier article I discuss one way to give feedback.
  • Sense of Belonging The poet John Donne wrote, “no man is an island” and a lot of researchers comment about how important a good and happy atmosphere in the lab is to their productivity and motivation levels. Leaders take care to integrate new arrivals into the team as quickly as possible, rather than leaving it to chance.
  • Situational Control  Have you the skills, resources and time to do your work? When any of these are missing, motivation and quality levels can drop. So, it can be counterproductive to demand the impossible from people. At the same time, if you set challenging targets, you can help your people to grow and develop their skills.

My experience is that in cases where somebody is labelled as suffering a dip in motivation, one of these four categories is affected. When all four keys are intact, motivation results. Thus, the leadership challenge becomes, instead of concentrating on how to motivate their staff, focusing on supporting the development of the conditions that allow motivation to emerge. And if they’re experiencing reduced motivation, they can apply it to their own situation.

One answer that didn’t fit into any of these categories at first glance was “luck”. As we began to discuss the role that luck plays in research, one of the participants shared what Louis Pasteur had said on the subject: “In the field of observation, chance favours the prepared mind” and so luck lands in the Situational Control category.

What does knowing about these four keys open up for your leadership?

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