Understanding How Motivation, Risk, Change and Decision-Making Are Connected

One of the astonishing things about motivation is that because it comes from within our psyche it is correlated with other emotional propensities – like speed of decision-making, attitude to risk, and desire for change. Further, it is also aligned with our orientation towards people, things and ideas. If this is so, which I believe it is, we have more than one compelling reason to pay attention to motivation, for it can tell us so much more; not only that, but it will have a predictive quality too. The emotions anticipate what we want to do.

I need to spell this out in more detail, because it is quite staggering what I am saying; and then having spelt it out I’ll add some more detail.

We talk about, when we describe motivation, of ‘making the invisible visible’, by which we mean that like emotions themselves, our motivators are invisible to us most of the time. In some way we mostly feel them operating in the background and rarely draw our awareness to the foreground where we see them clearly. In that sense our motivators are like a fan operating on a hot day: we are glad of the coolness but pay no attention to – hardly notice even – the persistent humming of the blades. But emotions are not like thoughts; they are much more powerful than that; they literally drive us. But just as thoughts – ideas – can be connected, so emotions are connected (or perhaps more strongly, intertwined), not only with each other, but also with other aspects of our lives that we consider vital.

So, in the first instance, we realise that when we start mapping motivation, then we are also mapping our attitude to risk, whether that be risk-aversion or risk-friendliness. That’s significant, isn’t it? Hey, the whole financial service industry, for one area alone, has now to note what the clients’ attitude to risk is before one can professionally advise them on relevant investments. They tell you what they ‘think’ their attitude is, and based on their thoughts, the Independent Financial Adviser, or whoever, advises them. But as I often say, what we think is often not what we feel. Our motivations actually can tell you with great certainty what the client feels about risk. And that’s not just important for financial services: it’s important for every employer to know about every employee, given the context of certain roles. Would too much risk-friendliness create risks and liabilities for the company? Or, would too much risk-aversion lead to underachievement in certain contexts? Can you see how important this issue is?

And no less important is the issue of change; for just as with risk correlation, so also this frames our attitudes to change. This is vital in all team and organisational initiatives: it means that where we have large change programmes we can know whether the employees are change-averse, or even strongly change -averse; if so, then more resources must be deployed if we are to stand any chance of getting a positive result from the change process.

If we add to risk and change, the fact that motivation also measures speed of decision-making too: wow! Isn’t that something? And if it seems almost too much, consider this: of course it will measure speed of decision-making because there must be a direct correlation between being, say, risk or change averse and making a decision. The risk-averse will be slow to make a decision because they will, first, want to defer it, and secondly, they will want to be more sure, and that requires more evidence.

Then, on top of all this, there is the question of ‘orientation’. Now keep in mind that most people are a blend of motivators, and this can be especially true of their top 3 motivators: we can find a mix of relationship-type or achievement-type or growth-type motivators. But where we find a strong dominance of one type, then we also find an ‘orientation’. So, for example, it should be no surprise to find that relationship-type motivators (and motivators change over time so there is no stereotyping here) are people-orientated. This means not only is their interest in other people and their relationship to them, but that their communications too will primarily be about ‘people’. This can be positively in seeing the best in people and supporting them, or it can be negative: critical – projecting and blaming. Whereas if we consider the achievement-type motivators we find that talking about people is much less important: results and ‘things’ are important. There will be much more emphasis on the material side of life and how things work, technically. Finally, at the top end of the hierarchy the growth-type motivators. Here people like talking about not other people, not things, but ideas. Ideas have an exciting and visionary quality for the people with growth-type motivators, and you hear it in their conversation.

Now all of this is an awful lot to get one from describing someone’s motivators. But I said there was more: this is learning styles. We are all familiar with the Kolb learning styles, probably the best known example of this kind of analysis; we all have preferred ways of wanting to learn. In Kolb there are 4 types of learners; but in considering motivation there are 3. And these three are often associated with the phrase Think-Feel-Know, or as we call it: Feel-Think-Know. For us it is important that the order follows the three power centres of the body: Feel, the heart, Think, the head, and Know, the gut or Dan Tien (in Chinese medicine). In practical terms if we know someone’s motivators we can be sure then that we know the best way to present data to them. So, in brief: if we are dealing with a predominantly relationship-type motivator, then we need to ensure that there are plenty of examples, descriptions, stories and anecdotes; if we are dealing with a predominantly achievement-type, then we need to ensure that there is plenty of hard data, information, evidence and statistics; and if we are dealing with a predominantly growth-type, then we need to ensure that there are plenty of bullet points, simple facts, and summaries.

I am sure you will agree that this is a very rich cocktail of information to find out about any one person or team, or indeed a whole organisation. That is why – in addition to its intrinsic interest – motivation is so important. It is not an isolated phenomenon or property, but perhaps a governing element of a whole cluster of our emotional predilections.

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