The Science of Motivation
Psychologists have long sought to understand how individuals are both similar and different in what drives behavior, motivates and inspires action, and how their professional and life goals are selected and pursued. While there have been many approaches and perspectives proposed to explain such facets of behavior, the scientific community has settled on the fact that human motivation largely derives either from intrinsic or extrinsic factors.
Extrinsic motivation describes the extent to which people are motivated by material or external rewards, whereas intrinsic motivation describes the extent to which people act out of internal interest and enjoyment. In other words, the reward is doing the act itself (Ryan & Deci, 2000). As one can expect, individuals vary in the extent to which they are motivated by intrinsic or extrinsic factors, however it is intrinsic motivation that is of most interest to psychologists and practitioners as it is associated with many positive life outcomes, and largely resistant to contextual factors (Gagné & Deci, 2005; Ryan & Deci, 2000). When leaders talk about creating a workforce that is inspired and value driven, they are describing the desire to have an intrinsically motivated workforce. How does one go about achieving this?
Answering this question, the psychologist Angela Duckworth astutely notes, “human beings all want three things. One is to be competent, one is to belong, and one is to be free, as in to have choice: to not be told what to do but to choose what to do”. Here she is describing Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a macro-theory of human motivation that describes one’s ability to live an intrinsically motivated and self-directed life as a function of one’s ability to satisfy needs for autonomy, competence, or relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 2012). These three needs operate at a macro level of human psychology and can be broadly described as “innate psychological nutriments that are essential for on-going psychological growth, integrity, and well-being” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p.229).
The Need for Autonomy can be described as “the need to self-organize experience and behavior to have activity be concordant with one’s integrated sense of self” (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Alternatively, it describes the extent to which individuals have the ability to have agency, the ability to make one’s own decisions, and have ownership over one’s life. It shares a conceptual overlap with internal locus of control, whereby individuals have volition and agency; they are able to influence the direction of their lives, rather than be subject to external factors that are out of one’s control.
The Need for Competence can be described as “the need to feel a sense of mastery over the environment and to develop new skills” (Van den Broeck, Ferris, Chang, & Rosen, 2016, p.1198). The need for competence arises from the satisfaction and well-being derived from being able to exercise, as well as improve one’s capabilities, skill sets, and knowledge (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This need is most readily met when the presented challenge is not significantly above or below one’s current level of ability.
The Need for Relatedness can be described as “the need to feel belongingness and connectedness with others” (Ryan & Deci, 2000). This need explains an individual’s desire to build and maintain relationships with others, feel a sense of belonging, and the exchange of positive emotions and reciprocal behaviors (Van den Broeck et al., 2016).
As a macro-theory of human motivation, SDT’s primary premise is that based on the extent to which these three needs are met, the likelihood of intrinsic motivation will increase. This position has been empirically supported in numerous scientific studies. Summarizing this research, a meta-analysis of over 100 independent studies found that need satisfaction accurately predicted many positive work outcomes (i.e. job performance & satisfaction, productive & counter productive work behavior, burnout & engagement, etc.; Van den Broeck et al., 2016). Given its theoretical parsimony, explanatory power, and predictive validity, SDT was selected to serve as the theoretical foundation for the Core Values Diagnostic.
Although SDT is a robust framework to understand human motivation, its macro-level perspective poses a challenge when attempting to create a diagnostic tool to inform talent management strategies and decisions. Accordingly, the personal values literature can serve as a more proximal set of concepts that can be more readily measured and engaged (Diefendorff & Chandler, 2010). Where personality describes behavioral dispositions and tendencies, personal values describe individual differences in goals, ambitions, and motivations that transcend specific situations (Parks-Leduc, Feldman, & Bardi, 2015). Values describe foundational goals, ambitions, and identities that serve as heuristics and anchors for behavior and orientating one’s life. The more readily a value is activated, the more likely they are to influence behavior, and result in the individual experiencing positive affect and engagement at work (Rich, Lepine, & Crawford, 2010; Verplanken & Holland, 2002).
The two most popular frameworks of personal values are Schwartz's Basic Human Values model (1994) and Holland’s Vocational Interests (Holland, 1959). Schwartz’ model posits that there are 10 basic values that guide and orient behavior. These ten values have been replicated across various cultures and related to a variety of life outcomes (Schwartz, 2012). Holland’s approach posits six behavioral preferences that are aligned with different career and job types. Empirical research has demonstrated that when these vocational values have been met, the individual is likely to display high levels of job performance (Schnell, Höge, & Pollet, 2013).
Concluding on the above research, human motivation can be summarized by three distinct mechanisms. First, it is intrinsic not extrinsic motivation that is most associated with positive life and work outcomes. Second, SDT theory describes three high-level psychological needs that when met produce elevated levels of intrinsic motivation. Last, personal values describe lower-order psychological factors that strongly shape and orient behavior.
Given these mechanisms, the Core Values Diagnostic uses personal values to operationalize SDT’s three macro psychological needs. Taking influence from Schwartz and Holland’s frameworks, we identified commonalities between the two approaches and organized them according to SDT’s three needs. This produced a model that has high explanatory power, can produce actionable and practical insights, and is built upon robust scientific rationale. Figure 1 displays the Core Values model.
Figure 1: The Core Values Model