The WHY: Tapping into intrinsic motivations

A section of Cognitive Surplus is dedicated to the concept of motive: why do people give of themselves in some pretty extraordinary ways, and how can understanding those motivations help us to increase the kind of behavior we desire (and on which our future depends)?

He identifies two aspects of motive that should be part of every community organizer’s way of seeing the world and, indeed, part of how every nonprofit organization views its volunteers, clients, donors, and patrons.

He’s talking about intrinsic motivation (that which comes from within, then, not responses to external incentives), and he divides it into two elements:

autonomy (control over what we do and how we do it)
competence (desire to be good at what we do)

And, reading that analysis, and a terrific example of how groups of Josh Groban fans have illustrated those principles with their charitable giving, I was struck by how often we create institutions, and interventions, that destroy those two powerful impulses.

How often do we really give our grassroots leaders, volunteers, or clients autonomy, even over the decisions that govern their own lives? How often are they designing strategy, choosing tactics, planning their own treatments?

How often do we give people an opportunity to develop skills in areas that are new to them? How willing are we to let someone learn something new, especially when we consider ourselves experts? How good are we at designing campaigns that create roles in which people can accumulate and be celebrated for their acquired competence, even in relatively small ways?

Conversely, how often do we expect people to “sign up” for our preconceived formulation of what their contribution should be, and then express disappointment/surprise/disgust when they are less than enthusiastic? How often do we witness what Shirky warns against–the dangers of creating what look like opportunities for autonomy but are really attempts to fit people into our mold? How frequently do we forget that “amateur” reflects an authentic love, and that love is something we definitely don’t want sucked out of our causes? How often do we cringe when a grassroots leader, or a volunteer, or a client performs a task less expertly than we would, even after expending considerably more effort, and miss noticing the transformation that occurs from giving people room in which to be autonomous, and to develop a sense of competence that can only come with freedom to try?

Let’s start this year with a resolve to spend less time asking “why won’t people ____________?” and more time asking ourselves if we’re doing enough to tap into the powerful reasons why people do things at all. And let’s see what happens then.

One response to “The WHY: Tapping into intrinsic motivations

  1. Thank you for reminding me what motivated me to become a social worker in the first place-my own to desire to learn new skills that would help me become a better person and, just maybe, in the process, be the right person at the right time to help someone else.

    There is always one guiding principal that I strive to keep at the forefront during my interactions with the consumers with whom I work-self determination. It is that self determination that allows them to discover the motivation to learn the skills that they will need to not only reach their goals, but to sustain them throughout the ongoing change process.

    One of my favorite books is Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet.” One particular quote that I stayed with me states “The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.” So, too, should we lead our grassroots leader, volunteers and client to develop their own house of wisdom wherein lies the motivation to make the changes they need and not the changes we desire for them.


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