Christa Ludlow, Principal Consultant of Weir Consulting, discusses how to motivate staff who are stuck in their old ways. Self Determination theory suggests that people are more likely to be intrinsically motivated by a goal when three key psychological needs are satisfied: autonomy, competence and relatedness, she writes.
I have been promoted to my first team leader role and at first I was excited about the opportunity. I introduced some changes to improve our efficiency but now I’m worried. My team agreed with me that we need to change but they are stuck in their old habits and I am constantly reminding them about the new procedures. Why can’t they just do what they are told?
You are describing the perennial problem of managers everywhere – “How do I get people to do stuff?” You can tell people what to do until you are blue in the face but motivating them to act differently involves more than just talking. Some people in your situation resort to yelling or threats – while this may work in the short term, it will eventually fail, besides being a betrayal of what being a leader is all about.
If you are aiming for behaviour change, you need to get to know your team members. What do they value? What matters to them? By discovering this you may discover how to motivate them.
As an example, for years hospital managers have tried to change the behaviour of health workers by increasing the rate at which they wash their hands before and after coming into contact with patients.
A study in the US tried two approaches – reminding hospital staff that not washing their hands put themselves at risk of disease, and another reminding them that not washing their hands put their patients at risk of disease. The second method increased hand hygiene more than the first, indicating that patient safety was close to their core values.
Another study conducted in Australia drilled down further to find that after personal safety and the risk to patients, doctors and nurses had different values. Doctors cared most about whether the risks of failing to wash were noticed by others, while nurses cared more about how their team’s performance in hand hygiene compared to other nursing teams.
This shows that the same approach to changing behaviour will not work for everyone. You need to understand what is important to them and appeal to their values, needs and desires.
Apart from our values, we are motivated by some key psychological needs. We are highly motivated to do what is intrinsically satisfying for us (satisfying for its own sake). However not all work tasks are that satisfying and the motivation for them is extrinsic – it is motivated by some form of reward or punishment.
That doesn’t mean rewards and punishments have no effect. Extrinsic motivating factors can, over time, become “internalised”. For example there are some things that we do not for their own sake but because of an external reason that is important to us – we want to get a high score on our performance review, for example. We might perform other tasks to avoid negative feelings such as guilt.
Your team may be partly on the way to identifying with your goal for them and internalising the motivation to do the task, because they accept there is a need for change. But they need some help.
Self Determination theory suggests that people are more likely to be intrinsically motivated by a goal when three key psychological needs are satisfied – autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Autonomy means you have some control or choice over what you do or the way that you do it.
Competence means you feel able to master the skill involved.
Relatedness refers to our need for belonging and close relationships with others.
The more we pursue our intrinsic aspirations, the better our wellbeing is likely to be, both physically and mentally.
So how can you support those needs in your staff? Here are some ideas based on research.
Firstly ask the employee how they view the change at work. How does it impact on them? How could the change influence their personal goals? How could it be done better? By allowing them to reflect on this and provide input and ideas, they are gaining autonomy in relation to the task.
Provide them with support and encouragement to help them expand their skills and test themselves. Remain positive and give feedback. This will help grow competence.
Finally, by creating a warm, empathic and supportive workplace environment for your team, you will foster a feeling of relatedness.
If you can learn to be a manager who provides support for these important needs, you can help increase your team’s motivation to achieve their work goals as well as your own.
Christa Ludlow is a lawyer with over 20 years’ experience in employment law and administrative law, and a qualified coach and mediator. She is a Principal Consultant with WEIR Consulting. WEIR provides workplace conflict resolution, investigation, coaching and training services to clients in the public and private sectors. Contact Christa at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find WEIR Consulting on Facebook and LinkedIn.
 Christopher P. Niemiec and Gordon B. Spence (2017) Optimal Motivation at Work. Lindsay G. Oades, Michael F. Steger, Antonella Delle Fave, and Jonathan Passmore (eds), The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of the Psychology of Positivity and Strengths-Based Approaches at Work, John Wiley & Sons Ltd