Finding your natural motivation

Several books offer resources for employees and managers to help boost that internal drive to excel.


Adam Forni is a senior associate at Linwood Engineering, Costa Mesa, Calif. Courtesy: Linwood EngineeringHave you ever experienced a loss of self-motivation, or a drop in that internal drive to excel? Are your co-workers or employees just "going through the motions," completing projects without real engagement? The causes of these phenomena can range from poor management to poor project mix. But they have one thing in common: in each case employees have lost some of their intrinsic motivation—the incredibly powerful, often-untapped impetus inside each of us.

Several recent works offer bold new insights in this area. In his excellent book “Drive,” Daniel H. Pink explores the modern forces constricting motivation. First, extrinsic rewards—external incentives like paychecks, bonus pay, and praise—are insufficient to encourage real engagement. Indeed, they can at times even stifle creativity, for example by tricking us into thinking money is our only incentive. Second, some managers think their job is to simply control employees, ensuring compliance and strictly monitoring output. As humans we're born curious and generally self-directed, yet these two forces combined can curb our innate inspiration.

Autonomy, says Pink, can address these issues. Autonomy is defined not as go-it-alone independence, but rather as individual choice over methods and outcomes. Dozens of recent studies show autonomous motivation provides teeming benefits, including greater conceptual understanding, higher productivity, less burnout, and higher levels of psychological well-being. It can mean the difference between a terribly bored employee and a completely engaged one.

Challenge yourself by asking: Does my company offer autonomy? That is, do managers meticulously review progress every few hours, redline plans incessantly, and decree overly rigid standards? Or do they give junior engineers total creative control, absolute freedom to schedule milestones, and complete discretion on deciding when to check in with managers? Most firms necessarily fall between these two extremes, depending on size, project mix, and company culture. But these are important questions to ask, whether you're a senior manager looking to boost productivity or a new hire seeking the right firm.

If autonomy is so powerful, why isn't it better embraced? Several culprits exist. Of course, delivering just one set of disastrously unreviewed construction documents can end long-term clients in an instant. Thus, robust quality assurance is always needed. Second, when given unlimited time, engineers tend to over-detail; we solve the problem too much. So reasonable oversight is needed, especially given our industry's ever-tightening budgets and schedules. Finally, some argue that certain employees are simply not self-directed. In fact, blindly following directions becomes second nature for many, but it's still possible to return to the innate exploratory nature we had as children, before the rigidities of school and work kicked in.

Despite the management status quo, it's becoming clear that more autonomy can benefit our firms. Consider the following:

  • According to Jone L. Pearce's “Real Research for Managers,” greater intrinsic rewards are attained by using a wider variety of an employee's skills, allowing completion of a project from beginning to end, and permitting flexibility to plan, schedule, and complete a project. We care more about the work we are personally responsible for.
  • Effective mentors drop in regularly to be available to answer questions, not to bark orders. This encourages the project engineer to proactively think up the right questions, and to appreciate managerial visits rather than dread them.
  • For the senior employee: When reviewing and correcting work, avoid the temptation to just give the “right answer.” One manager tended to mark up review sets to the Nth degree, sometimes basically redesigning the project in red pen. To encourage autonomy, he later offered more broad advice, for example referring the designer to a previous similar project. While this took the designer more time, he learned more, took more pride in his work, and even devised novel corrections otherwise missed by the manager.
  • According to David H. Maister's “Managing The Professional Service Firm,” managers believe 40% to 50% of their work could be delegated to more junior employees. The above facts taken together suggest that deliberate delegation can not only free up managers' time, but make younger employees more engaged and, eventually, more valuable to the firm.

If you're a manager, consider incorporating these practices to the extent possible. If you're not, and you want more autonomy, either apply pressure or apply for another position. Each of us deserves a position that puts our full skills to use, especially because it's usually in the firm's best interest.

Adam Forni is a senior associate at Linwood Engineering, Costa Mesa, Calif. He serves as the senior liaison for high-profile clients including several major developers and Fortune 500 companies. He is a Consulting-Specifying Engineer 2013 40 Under 40 award winner. 

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