Change Work May 2010

I know what I don't want

After the excitement of the UK general election we now have the fascinating spectacle of a coalition government.  There are "people who have never sat next to each other" now side-by side on the benches of the House of Commons.  It seems like only yesterday that the news was full of comment on how to vote to keep the Tories out.  Now we're in the honeymoon period and everyone's in love!

You're probably already wondering what deep lesson I'm going to draw from these observations. Well, I don't know how deep it is but here goes.

The apparent anti-Conservative unity was interesting in the way that it overtook actual policies.  Preventing the feared things became much more important than promoting the desired things.  It brings to mind John Cleese's remark (that I've mentioned before) that every Englishman's ambition is to get through life without being seriously embarrassed!

Wanting to prevent something bad rather than to do something else that's better is an example of "away motivation".  Recently, when I was setting some business goals for the coming year, it occurred to me that my own preference for away motivation causes me to be much more interested in what I'll be doing rather than where I'll be going.  So, if reaching the goal appears to involve doing something I don't like then I don't feel motivated. And this completely overrides my desire to achieve the object.

Re-kindling some "towards motivation" involves imagining what it will be like to have succeeded.  Stepping into that future time and seeing what I'll be able to see, hearing the sounds and feeling the feelings brings the goal to life.  If you tend to be at the towards end of the motivation spectrum then you will probably do something similar to my visualisation exercise unconsciously.  You will usually feel motivated to pursue your goals and, if you don't, you'll change them.  At the same time, you may have very little awareness of the problems that lie ahead.

Away motivation typically causes you to move away from pain or distress. So, you will start to do something new when you perceive it to be less painful than doing nothing.  I suppose this could motivate you to pursue a goal if you believed that failure would be very unpleasant.  In my experience though, I don't actually expect to fail, even when not taking any action.  That fear comes much later, when it's too late!

As well as deliberately cultivating a towards state through visualisation, another helpful strategy is to focus on the first step and not the whole journey.  This usually presents you with something that looks possible and within your range of behaviours.  If it happens to be something particularly difficult then by isolating it in this way you allow yourself to do your best without being distracted or intimidated by the whole string of problems you can see ahead.

It also helps to build into the plan something you know that you'll enjoy doing.  And this anticipation of reward, in the form of a pleasurable activity, is one of the towards strategies that will become unconscious "second nature" when practised a few times.

So far I've assumed that the goals you're pursuing are your own - chosen and defined by you.  But of course, most of us are regularly being given objectives by others: the boss, family members and even the government!  (I accept that in principle someone could be strongly motivated to pursue the goal of national financial rectitude, i.e. reducing debt, but it's difficult to give it much weight against the anticipated pain of getting there!)

If it's part of your job to work towards your organisation's goals then you have to get on with it as best you can. You might apply yourself above and beyond the call of duty or you might do the minimum, perhaps criticising and looking for justification to hold back.  A key factor here is to what extent the organisation's values, vision and purpose - as embodied in its stated goals - are consistent with your own.  A serious clash at this level will make it very difficult for you to continue with integrity.

If you're in the position of leader, responsible for a team's performance, then of course you will want to be aware of each member's preferred motivation direction and to take it into account when discussing their individual role.  It's also good to be aware of your own motivators and to remember that they aren't shared by everyone.  In fact, the diversity in a team is likely to be one of its strengths.  I could summarise how to "do" each motivation direction as follows:

Towards motivation is where you set a goal and worry about how to get there later. You imagine success.

Away motivation is where you think of a goal and immediately worry that you don't know how to get there. You imagine failure.

There are obvious problems with both of these strategies. The first will generate lots of urgency and action but will soon hit unforeseen obstacles.  The second will move forward extremely cautiously, if at all.

Both together can result in a well thought-out plan, pursued energetically.

So how do you get people with such diametrically opposed outlooks to work together?  I'm afraid I'll have to come back to that in a future article, but meanwhile, let's hope that someone high up in the new government knows the answer!