Motivation can be turned on and off – but how?

2021-10-19 11:21



Three factors create the feeling of independence and motivation – but Igniters and Extinguishers determine how well we succeed.

In a demanding and knowledge-intensive working life, it becomes more important than ever that employees feel motivated. But what does it take to achieve a high degree of motivation?  In the past, external incentives were mainly used to motivate employees, but today we know that the feeling of self-determination,  competence  and  belonging plays an even more important role. In connection with this, you can talk about Igniters and Extinguishers  – i.e., factors that can spark motivation, or risk extinguishing it.

In earlier times, motivation was almost exclusively about carrot and stick, but in today’s working life, work often requires so much commitment and dedication that the external incentives are simply no longer enough. Motivation must come from within – otherwise it is difficult to force the creativity and sense of responsibility that is so often needed to solve modern tasks.

But what is the basis for the inner motivation that makes us truly committed to our work?

Of course, a lot of research has been conducted on this issue, and perhaps the most important answers have come from researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, via TED Ideas. These gentlemen are behind so-called Self-Determination theory, which argues that the degree of independence and self-determination is crucial to our motivation.

The theory of self-determination can be broken down into three main elements: autonomy, competence, and affiliation. Autonomy refers to the feeling of being able to make your own decisions and influence how the work should be carried out. Competence is about feeling that you have mastery of the job, have control over what you do and have expertise. Belonging means that you are part of a social context and feel that your work contributes to the team’s and the organisation’s higher goals.

When these three factors are met, we feel motivated. If one or more of them are missing, there’s a risk that motivation diminishes or disappears completely.

Igniters and Extinguishers control motivation

Our own expert Jan Sandgren, who is responsible for Zebrain Labs, says that it is also important to understand the difference between factors that spark motivation, and factors that risk extinguishing it. Zebrain’s platform distinguishes between what are called Igniters and Extinguishers.

“The Igniters lead to increased job satisfaction and increased performance the more often and more strongly they are experienced. The Extinguishers act in the opposite direction and reduce job satisfaction and performance if they are substandard or malfunctioning. They are a necessary but not sufficient basis for real motivation,” Jan says.

“We can take the example of trains to illustrate the difference between igniters and extinguishers. The locomotive is an ignition factor, and the rails are an extinguishing factor. The more powerful the locomotive pulls, the faster the train goes. But if the rails aren’t intact, the train doesn’t get anywhere. The rails have to be okay to start with, but even if they are made of gold, the train won’t go any faster for that,” he says.

Igniters and Extinguishers also affect our feeling of self-determination. An example of an Igniterthat gives a sense of autonomy, competence and belonging is to see your own progress in your work. Strong progress makes us feel autonomous and competent, while the sense of belonging is also strengthened because we see how we contribute to the team.

“When I see for myself that I am succeeding at something, I get direct feedback on my performance, and it is a very strong Igniter. That experience creates a flow of dopamine in the brain that makes us want more and more. The gaming industry’s enormous success is very much based on that Igniter,” Jan says.

But when you play a video game or computer game, you have to understand the rules of the game first and foremost – it’s an absolute prerequisite for progressing in the game. The same is true in working life; to experience independence at work, you must first know what area of responsibility and mandate you have and what is expected of you.

“An important Extinguisher is ambiguity, not knowing what the expectations are. It’s hard to compensate with ignition factors such as Independence, Personal Development and Belonging,” Zebrain’s expert says.

Create a sense of meaning

Removing any extinguishing factors is, in other words, an absolute prerequisite for motivation. But in parallel with that, you have to grow and develop the ignition factors. Positive feedback is an example of an important Igniter. At the same time, feedback is something of a two-edged sword, since too much negative criticism can act as an Extinguisher.

Employees experience autonomy, competence and belonging if you coach them instead of micromanaging them and communicate clearly, giving positive feedback and continuously highlighting the progress they have made in their work. When these factors are in place, there are very good conditions for motivation. But it is also important that the employee sees that the work has meaning and that his or her efforts make a difference to other people.

“The experience of meaningfulness is very important for motivation,” Jan says. “By this we mean the experience that what I do means something to others. I contribute to something bigger than myself is a very strong Igniter.”

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