As humans, our tendency is to boil concepts down to its most basic elements. In doing so we extract the uniqueness in pursuit of simplicity. We often do this by using generalizations. These generalizations, while having some utility, rob us of seeing the uniqueness of individual difference. Understanding and embracing uniqueness has been forgotten in many places in our world. This is especially true in our workplace. If we want to activate the natural intrinsic motivation of the people we lead, it will start with looking for the uniqueness of each person.
I’ve spent more than 20 years studying human motivation. I started the process working on a graduate degree in counseling psychology in 1995. I easily adapted to the world of theory, diagnosis, and generalizing why people do what they do. That’s what academic institutions do. They seek knowledge by breaking concepts down to elements that are understandable.
This isn’t a bad thing, but I saw the uniqueness of people being stripped away. An example of this can be found in the theories of human motivation. Over the past 150 years, there have been many theories that have related to the motives and the behavioral triggers of people. In true academic style, motivation theory sought to simplify motivation into the most common denominators. Freud believed motives were based on sexual drive. Maslow believed it was the five basic needs. McClelland believed it was three core needs of achievement, power, and affiliation. I could go on, but you get the picture.
In an email conversation with the late psychologist and Ohio State University professor Dr. Steven Reiss, I asked him why his latest research that he used to create his Basic Desires Theory had to be 16 elements. I asked if there was a way to pair the 16 drives down to 8 or maybe even 6. I wanted to do this so it would be easier to teach in the corporate world. His response to me was this, “To do so would not be pure to the science and would manipulate to our own needs.”
His response was a reminder to me that if I’m not careful, my desire to simplify can lead me down the road of manipulation and scientific dishonesty. It also reminded me of the sanctity of human uniqueness.
Reiss’ research found that some motivation drivers don’t align with western (mainly North American) norms. Many people have had to suppress certain motivation triggers to “fit in” and be accepted. Others have decided to go along with what society expects thereby leading to a level of life dissatisfaction.
One example of this is in parenting. The data shows that there is a fundamental, internal motivational drive for many people to raise children. However, the research also shows that there are some who do not have this same intrinsic drive. Such people are often judged as selfish or “something must be wrong” if they don’t want to have children. Some of these people do have children and their intrinsic motivation to be good parents is low resulting in poor or absentee parenting.
So imagine a world where we embrace the uniqueness and difference of others. This uniqueness is what makes our world great. If we can overcome our own need for similarity and the insecurity that exists when people are different than us, we find that difference and uniqueness is what makes our world beautiful.
If you want to be an effective leader or influencer and want to have a real impact on people, you have to start with how you view people. Every person is different, unique, and gifted in a special way. Our job as leaders is to help people understand their uniqueness, embrace it, and leverage it to make their life, their work, their family, their community, and the world a better place.
This is the essence of the concept of Activation. Activation is a concept that I teach leaders for how to support natural intrinsic motivation and inspire engagement in the workplace. Activation is a process of turning something on. Activation is igniting something that already exists but needs a spark. Activation is a process for helping people unleash the best of themselves into the world.
I used the word activation because it’s a different way to view what leaders believe about motivation. Many leaders have a belief that they must say or do something motivational to energize and engage their people to work hard and achieve. The research is very clear. You do not motivate someone directly. Rather, you create relationships, interactions, environments, and experiences that activate the natural motivation and energy a person already has within themselves.
We all have the capacity to be activated. Leaders can activate others. A world that has more people activating each other is a world that thrives. Workplaces that have leaders that are activating people are workplaces that thrive.
A commitment to activating people requires a loosening of our need to compete, win, and make others lose. It’s a shift in mindset from inward to outward. A mindset that takes a different view of how success is created. Rather than success being a state of winning or achieving on our own, it’s a viewpoint that success is created when we achieve with others and even when we help others achieve.
But it’s more than a mindset, it’s a commitment to other people. A commitment that requires a combination of humility and strength. Strength is our ability to resist ego and insecurity while humility seeks to do what is best for other people.
A great deal of poor leadership is derived from a lack of inner strength. When leaders lack strength they have a problem with people disagreeing with them. They can’t handle opposing points of view. A lack of strength creates poor tolerance with people who are different and a lack of discipline in their actions and responses.
The new science of motivation takes us back to the root of who we are as humans. It takes us back to how we were created and who we are as people. We are people that have brains that are wired to be interdependent and to find an internal satisfaction and enjoyment from helping others to not just survive but to thrive.
Think back to a time that you helped someone and didn’t expect anything in return. It could have been when you helped someone with a work problem. It could have been a time when you gave money or time to someone who was in need. Now remember the feeling you had when you helped the person. Remember the sense of satisfaction, enjoyment, and happiness you had when you helped and you saw the impact of your actions. There is a reason you felt the way you did. It is because you tapped into the core of who you are.
Helping others can help us better understand how to activate people. Activation is how we help people bring out the best in themselves. Activation goes beyond simple motivation because it moves to the heart of what humans want and how we tap into the best of who we are. Activation doesn’t just help, it connects with people, it creates prosperous relationships while also calling people to a higher level of living.
Image if you were able to create a culture where everyone not only supported and collaborated well with others but are committed to taking action to bring out the best in each other? Imagine the impact this kind of organization could have.
Activation starts with a commitment to helping others win. This begins when we start looking at people with a lens of uniqueness. Leaders who activate others understand that supporting the motivation and engagement of people means we have to take an individual approach. We have to know people. We have to seek to better understand their values and unique motivation triggers. When we are able to lead through activation we find that people respond to the deep level of respect we give them. A deep level of respect that is, at its core, a respect for who they truly are and who they were created to be.
To learn more about the motivation factors that can help you see the uniqueness of others check out my articles on The 16 Drivers of Meaning and Motivation.