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Motivation Matters: Self-motivation is a small business advantage

February 08. 2015 7:07PM

SOMETIMES in large organizations, well-intentioned new “motivational initiatives” are accompanied by a lot of hoopla, but little substantive change. A huge sign in the lobby proclaims a new slogan. Coffee mugs adorn each employee’s desk, emblazoned with the motto of the campaign. These efforts may not be getting through to inner or intrinsic motivation, though.

“Sloganeering” is what some management gurus derisively label such efforts done superficially. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with an all-out effort to instill a better way of thinking. “Good enough isn’t good enough” was one firm’s try. “Quality Is Job One” was another’s. Of course, the genuineness of the claim and commitment by the firm to the objective, as assessed by those who are asked to live it out (the workers), either supports or undermines the ensuing success.

New morale-building initiatives can be undertaken at a fundamental level, and small businesses as well as individual departments or divisions of larger organizations have a great shot at success in increasing motivation. There are fewer inhibiting bureaucratic variables — less need to get required sign-offs for posters and premiums. And since the initiators of the effort (managers and owners) are closer to the employees (organizationally, if not physically), the program will probably enjoy more street credibility among the rank-and-file.

Intrinsic or self-motivation, as has been addressed in prior columns (redundancy is the mother of mastery, or so the professorial wisdom goes), is a superior form of drive in the workplace, bringing with it more productivity, creativity, and health.

This type of motivation comes about by the satisfaction of certain psychological drives or needs. We will examine these with an eye toward how smaller work units have special opportunities to present a self-motivating environment.

The need for autonomy is about having some influence or control over how work gets done. This entails a sense of empowerment — owning one’s job, taking pride in accomplishment. Experiencing satisfaction of this need requires the manager to avoid controlling language and behavior whenever possible. By contrast, consider the following occurrence.

“That manager is terrific — she knows exactly what her people are doing at all times” was a comment made by one of my managerial colleagues when I was in a corporate setting. “Would YOU want to work for someone like that?”, I recall uttering in amazement. Micromanagement is an extreme way of not meeting this motivational need. Welcoming input from subordinates, however, is key.

For example, resist bringing a completely developed new initiative to your group. Better to involve them early, getting feedback and ideas on improving a proposal during its formulation. The small business advantage here includes giving people opportunities to take initiatives, even if the probability of success — at least in your experienced opinion — is limited. Note that for true autonomy to exist, people must be free to make mistakes (within reason) — to go beyond current procedures.

The busyness of small work units also invites more cross-over activity — picking up the ringing phone or hopping over to the customer service desk when a line forms. These impromptu functions allow growth in both experience and the attendant skills, satisfying a second intrinsic motivation need: the need for competence or expanding one’s capabilities and knowledge. “I’m either growing or I’m going” captures the idea. A small work unit better accommodates this need since there are fewer organizational lines to cross.

When I was a college student I worked part-time for a department store. Though I was principally responsible for managing the sales clerks, the store manager knew of my academic interest in advertising, and let me write the weekly ads which appeared in the market’s top-circulation Sunday paper. Can you imagine such an opportunity being extended in my first full-time job at a major car maker? Not even if I was in the advertising department (which I wasn’t), I submit.

Finally, there is the innate need for relatedness — to care for, and be cared for by, colleagues. “I want to go where everybody knows my name” was part of the Cheers TV show’s theme song touching upon this human desire. A small work team encourages such acceptance and mutual care and reliance. Occasional outings, even just to share a pizza in celebration of a victory such as getting a special order shipped out on time or, in the case of a florist at Valentine’s Day, merely surviving! A manager inquiring about a matter she realizes an employee is having to deal with, goes miles in meeting this innate need.

In summary: Keep an eye out for opportunities in your day-to-day dealings with employees to say an encouraging word, to give a challenging assignment, to ask for recommendations or opinions. You may well light a motivational fire.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational and sports psychologist with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and his wife, Veronica, a former senior HR executive of an international investment bank, head up a consulting firm based in Campton, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at


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