The What and How of Motivation

Motivation is a complex concept with many definitions. I have a simple definition: People are most motivated, or engaged in what they are doing, when they are 1) acting in accordance with their values and 2) acting in a way that builds on their strengths and not their weaknesses.

Values are what we hold as most important to us. I do not mean them necessarily as moral values—some are, some are not. At CentACS, where we focus on personality assessment, we have identified 16 broad values terms. While you may prefer a different word than one of our 16, these terms cover pretty much the gamut of what folks hold as important:

  • AchievementDisney on Values
  • Activity
  • Beauty
  • Competition
  • Health
  • Helping
  • Independence
  • Intellect
  • Justice
  • Materialism
  • Pleasure
  • Power
  • Relationships
  • Spirituality
  • Stability
  • Status

So, step one of motivating someone is to know their top and bottom values—that comprises their values “style.” Knowing what values to build on and what values to avoid is critical to motivation. Want to motivate me? Then make sure to ask me to do something that builds on my passion for Pleasure, Beauty, Intellect, and Independence, and don’t expect me to resonate on anything that smacks of Power, Competition, Materialism, or Status.

But knowing what values to build on is not the same as knowing how to build on those values. The how is determined by knowing the individual’s behavioral traits and mental abilities. These days, pesonality traits are most often expressed by the Five-Factor Model, or the Big Five:

  • Need for Stability—calm vs. reactive
  • Extraversion—quiet/solitary vs. in the thick of the action
  • Originality—practical and detail-oriented vs. creative and big picture-oriented
  • Accommodation—competitive and aggressive vs. collaborative and conflict-averse
  • Consolidation—spontaneous and multi-tasking vs. focused on goals

Mental abilities do not have such a succinct model as the Big Five, but a satisfying way to categorize them is Gardner’s eight talents:

  • VerbalBrain with cogwheels
  • Mathematical/Logical
  • Visual/Spatial
  • Auditory
  • Kinesthetic
  • Natural Observer (as in taxonomies and complex organizational schemes)
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal

My salient personality trait is high Originality (creative, love of compleCentxity, comfortable with change), and my salient mental abilities are mathematics and taxonomy development. To determine how to motivate me, here’s all you need:

What to do: Something that builds on my value for Intellect, Beauty, Pleasure, and/or Independence

How to do it: Use my creativity, numerical ability, and/or fondness for taxonomy development

Recommendation: Ask me to scan what is being done around the world on a topic of mutual interest and come up with a best practices model.

Rationale: Conducting research builds on my value for Intellect, and the model development builds on my abilities in Natural Observation and taxonomy development.

I suggest you make a little card that profiles each person for whom you feel some responsibility for keeping motivated. On each card, list:

  • What:
    • Values to emphasize or build on
    • Values to avoid
  • How:
    • Big Five traits to emphasize
    • Big Five traits to minimize
    • Mental abilities to emphasize
    • Mental abilities to minimize

Periodically have a dialog with these folks and mutually evaluate the degree to which they are acting in accordance with their values and in light of their behavioral and mental strengths.

Motivation is as simple as that. Know what they value, and how they naturally go about their everyday activities. And if neither is obvious to you, ask us at Center for Applied Cognitive Studies for help.

One thought on “The What and How of Motivation

Add yours

  1. This is a great article, Pierce. I love how succinctly and clearly you described some complex concepts. I especially like the fact that you lay out the example of how to motivate people by using your self. Very helpful–thanks!

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