Needs-Based Coaching: Employee Motivation in a New Light
By Craig Perrin
Behind every unmotivated employee is a leadership problem to be solved. Yet many leaders see motivation as a game of rewards and punishment. Forget the cash. Forget the threats. To engage today’s workforce, a leader is well advised to seek the heart of what moves people: their three basic psychological needs. But to glimpse the future of motivation, it may be helpful first to glance at the past.
A Brief History of Motivation
Reward and punishment are as old as the human race. For our tribal ancestors, survival was a critical motivator. In today’s workplace, where physical safety isn’t always the immediate first concern, how much do we really know about what motivates employees? In fact, science has explored this question for a hundred years.
In the 1900s, Frederick Taylor developed what became known as Scientific Management, which held that workers are primarily motivated by pay, and the main job of leaders is to set and enforce work standards.
In the 1940s, B.F. Skinner offered a different theory of motivation: Behaviorism, often called the “carrot and stick.” Rewards (the carrot) motivate good behavior, and punishment (the stick) discourages bad behavior.
In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg, and others began to explore internal motivators – including satisfaction in the work itself. These researchers asked, “Is there a better way to motivate employees that doesn’t rely on rewards and punishment?”
Today, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester and other psychologists around the world are deeply exploring internal motivation. Their 40 years of research – known as Self-Determination Theory (SDT) – have turned much of what we believe about motivation upside-down. Author Daniel Pink has recently stoked interest in SDT with his bestselling Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. According to Pink, “Deci and Ryan…are the sun around which all this other research orbits. They’re true pioneers. Forty years from now, we’ll look back on them as two of the most important social scientists of our time.”
What are some implications of this cutting-edge research for helping employees engage their work and drive business results?
SDT has isolated six different forms of motivation, which for simplicity may be grouped under two headings: external and internal. Both kinds of motivation are driven by needs.
For most adults, work meets many needs – income, of course, as well as friendship and achievement. Too often, though, employees feel bored or alienated at work. The result can be illness, absenteeism, and turnover, with huge cost to the organization.
Studies and daily experience confirm that people will certainly work to earn an external reward (whether money, promotion, perk, or acclaim). Once they achieve the goal, however, motivation falls off sharply.
Observing these problems, many leaders assume that employees, having secured food and shelter, become passive. So these leaders try to control employees with threats of punishment or with external rewards, including bonuses, wage incentives, or promotions.
While it’s safe to say that many leaders will continue using these methods to motivate employees, literally scores of peer-reviewed studies since the 1970s have confirmed the negative impact of external rewards. Among the startling findings:
- Rewards consistently undermine sustained, long-term motivation and performance.
- Rewards for something employees already like to do especially undermine motivation and performance.
- And rewards make it more difficult for employees to be creative and solve complex problems.
Consider a simple example. In the 1993 Wimbledon final, Jana Novotna led the great Steffi Graf 6-7, 6-1, and was serving at 40-30 for a 5-1 lead in the final set. But Novotna double-faulted, then lost the game, and 10 minutes later lost the match. Any or all of the SDT findings may have figured into Novatna’s collapse:
- This Wimbledon championship would bring a major external reward: public adulation for joining an elite group of the greatest players in tennis history.
- Novatna no doubt enjoyed playing tennis, especially winning tournaments.
- And surely it was a complex task to beat Steffi Graf, who ended her career winning 107 titles, including seven Wimbledon championships.
As on the tennis court, so in the workplace. Attractive rewards – Dr. Deci calls them “seductive” rewards – heighten anxiety, cause people to feel controlled, and erode performance. Studies and daily experience confirm that people will certainly work to earn an external reward (whether money, promotion, perk, or acclaim). Once they achieve the goal, however, motivation falls off sharply.
So, in the workplace, any positive short-term effects of bonuses, deadlines, surveillance, threats, and other external motivators often mask their well-documented negative impact on immediate performance and long-term employee engagement.
In contrast, SDT has found, internal motivation occurs in one of two ways:
- The employee finds an activity inherently satisfying.
- Or the employee performs a task to satisfy some other need important to that person (for example, completing a dull task in order to contribute to a team effort).
While in both cases employees act to satisfy their needs, these needs are very different from the need to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.
A remarkable finding of worldwide SDT research is that everyone shares three basic psychological needs. Over 100 studies have confirmed that, compared to leaders who rely on rewards or threats, leaders who support satisfaction of these three psychological needs promote sustained internal motivation to achieve results:
- COMPETENCE is the need to feel valued as knowledgeable, skilled, and experienced. People have a powerful need to hone and demonstrate skills, whether technical, interpersonal, or leadership. Opportunities and support to develop and demonstrate competence are powerful internal motivators for every employee.
- RELATEDNESS is the need to collaborate with colleagues and coworkers. Regardless of their role, most employees want to work with others. Studies show this internal need to be more powerful than externally-driven needs to earn rewards or avoid punishment. Further, working effectively with others improves business results through a melding of views and experiences.
- AUTONOMY is the need to exercise self-regulation, within guidelines, to achieve business goals. No one has total freedom in the workplace because everyone must contribute to shared results. Still, people crave autonomy, or freedom to shape their work to support the work of others. A degree of individual flexibility – within established processes, procedures, and rules – helps employees thrive in an organizational setting.
Leaders can’t create internal motivation in their employees. They can support internal motivation by creating conditions that allow employees to satisfy their own needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. This is needs-based leadership, a powerful way to sustain individual performance, teamwork, and practical results.
The Need/Motivation/Outcome Connection
The essence of Self-Determination Theory, and its value for leaders, may be simply summarized, as in the Diagram 1 on page 20 showing the relationship among needs, motivation, and outcomes:
- Employees have many needs. Two of them are to gain rewards, monetary and otherwise, and to avoid punishment.
- If leaders focus on these needs to improve performance, they get external motivation to gain the reward or avoid the punishment.
- The outcome of external motivation is a short-term performance gain, quickly followed by a drop in motivation when the reward is achieved or the threat is gone.
- In contrast, if a leader can help employees satisfy their needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy, the result is internal motivation.
- The outcome of internal motivation, confirmed by extensive research and the experience of effective leaders, is sustained performance over time.
Leaders are usually relieved to learn that inspiring internal motivation is not in their job description. That’s up to the employee. But, in a practical sense, how exactly do leaders create a need-supporting workplace that helps employees find continuing motivation in their work?
Global SDT research has unequivocally established that – regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, culture, or life experiences – everyone shares the need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
Needs-Based Coaching is a vital skill set that supports daily performance by creating conditions in which employees strive to satisfy their need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. AchieveGlobal has worked closely with Edward L. Deci, co-founder of Self-Determination Theory, to develop Needs-Based Coaching, which helps leaders at all levels engage employees, who in turn drive business results.
Four coaching skills support internal motivation in employees to grow their expertise and apply it to solve business problems.
Let’s briefly consider the role and value of SDT in these four needs-based coaching skills.
Shaping a Motivational Workplace
People want to use their abilities, connect with others, and guide their own efforts. Global SDT research has unequivocally established that – regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, culture, or life experiences – everyone shares the need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
Leaders can support internal motivation in employees by applying three best practices:
- Adopt the employee’s perspective. An employee’s unique perspective is the “truth” from which that employee operates. Effective coaches develop a deep understanding of employees’ perspectives as a basis for all exchanges.
- Communicate in an informational way. Information helps employees understand their work and make wise choices. Controlling or judgmental communication blocks the three psychological needs. Effective coaching communicates in need-supporting ways.
- Generate opportunities for choice. The way that structure, guidelines, and goals are positioned for employees can support or undermine autonomy. Effective coaching offers meaningful choices and allows active involvement consistent with all three needs.
The practical goal of shaping a motivational workplace is sustained business performance and results driven by internally-motivated people.
Giving Needs-Based Feedback
Skill in giving feedback helps leaders support the internal motivation of employees to grow their knowledge and expertise. Employees gain internal motivation when work allows them to satisfy their psychological needs, including autonomy, or making decisions about their own activities. Yet organizations require employees to work within firm guidelines and timeframes.
Employees have latent talents and existing skills that leaders often fail to leverage. Turning these talents into capabilities is a leader’s most important work – and a requirement for long-term organizational success.
When an employee’s choices clash with organizational needs, effective leaders share information and redirect efforts – in other words, they give feedback. Giving feedback without undermining internal motivation is a serious challenge for every leader.
Feedback that reliably brings results takes an employee-centered approach, including:
- Genuine two-way dialogue
- Clear reasons for required structures and actions
- Collaboration on solutions and next steps
- Explicit links between a solution and the employee’s psychological needs
While a leader’s every action affects motivation, few conversations are as vital as giving feedback to align individual activities with group and organizational needs. The goal of all effective feedback is an employee internally motivated to take the appropriate steps.
To realize potential and achieve business outcomes, it’s vital for leaders to match the employee’s need to demonstrate competence with the organization’s need to succeed.
Realizing Talent in Others
Employees have latent talents and existing skills that leaders often fail to leverage. Turning these talents into capabilities is a leader’s most important work – and a requirement for long-term organizational success. Supporting this leadership role are SDT studies over the past 40 years confirming that people by their nature have a strong need to:
- Engage in interesting activities
- Succeed at new challenges
- Improve their competence
- Demonstrate mastery
So why do many employees feel disengaged at the prospect of job-related growth and development? And why do many leaders believe that developing others is too much effort for too little return?
Repairing this disconnect requires a fundamental rethinking of how leaders develop their employees. To realize potential and achieve business outcomes, it’s vital for leaders to match the employee’s need to demonstrate competence with the organization’s need to succeed.
Offering Rewards and Recognition
As earlier noted, external rewards – cash incentives, trophies, incentive trips, promotions, time off, and so on – are strong medicine that, if poorly prescribed, undermine internal motivation. But are rewards always bad? Not at all, if used in need-supporting ways. So effective leaders avoid competitions, for example (where a “loser” may be 1 percent less effective than a “winner”) and offer rewards that:
- Acknowledge a contribution, rather than control future behavior
- Appear equitable to employees
- Appear to employees worthy of the effort made or results attained
While rewards can support internal motivation, they pale in contrast to recognition, defined as spoken or written acknowledgment of an individual or team effort or result. To support the three needs, effective recognition is:
Like other coaching skills, offering recognition takes reflection, observation, and regular use to realize the business and human benefits of needs-based leadership.
The Payoff of Internal Motivation
Forty years of SDT research and hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have confirmed the many benefits of a workplace in which employees can satisfy their three basic psychological needs. In summary, this research has documented improved:
To realize these benefits, leaders need not delve deeply into the vast research supporting Self-Determination Theory. It’s enough, really, to understand the basics. To promote increased engagement, improved performance, and measurable business results, leaders do need to master the practical coaching skills for shaping a workplace in which internal employee motivation can become a daily reality.
About the Author
Craig Perrin is Director of Product Development with AchieveGlobal, a premier training and consulting organization with offices in over 40 countries (achieveglobal.com). Craig is a thought-leader who works cross-functionally and with clients to guide creation of a range of responses to market needs. He has played a central role in developing the company’s flagship programs in leadership, sales, and customer service; co-authored two bestselling books; written many articles and position papers; and produced learning solutions earning scores of national and international awards. Craig has been named a Times Mirror Editor of the Year.