Understanding Motivation

How Does Motivation Work?

Man at the top of the mountain - Symbol for motivation, performance and achievement

Motivation – Basics

Motivation explains why we do what we do, i.e., why we initiate, continue or stop a certain behaviour. It’s about what we’re driven for, what goals we’re striving for.

Motivation relates to motives that work within us and make us strive in a certain direction. Motivation is based on basic needs and is connected to emotions. Emotions bring us directly into action or inaction.

Motivational forces can work in different directions, associated with different emotions.

Towards Motivation

Toward motivation strives toward a desirable state (e.g., connectedness, reputation, success, power, etc.)

Positive Emotions

Driven by emotions such as (anticipatory) joy, attraction to other people (including sexuality) and anticipated pride.

Away-from Motivation

Away-from Motivation strives away from something we want to avoid (e.g. impending pain, lack, loss, etc.)

Away-from Emotions

Away motivation is primarily driven by fear: fear of unwanted states, as well as fear of other uncomfortable emotions (such as sadness, shame, guilt, anger, loss of control).

Interaction of motivational forces

Different motivations can work together in the same direction and reinforce each other:

  • The more the more: Obviously I’m more motivated when I have more reasons for (or against) the same thing. For example, success in my job not only gives me more physiological security and a more comfortable life, but also perhaps better chances of finding a partner or enables my children to get a better education.
  • Towards and away-from motivation can also work in the same direction: For example, someone who is very strongly motivated to succeed (and explains this by striving for a nice house and great trips for the family) might also be affected at the same time by fear to end up in poverty and lose everything.

When motivational forces contradict each other, internal conflicts arise and we lose motivation.

  • Toward motivations can work in different directions (e.g., “I wish for more success in my job and would like to work more for it, at the same time I wish for more time with my family”)
  • I may have conflicting towards and away-from motivations (e.g., “I would like to be more successful at work but want to avoid ending up in burnout again” or “I would like to have sex but avoid closeness”)

Once the basic physiological needs (eating, drinking, sleep, physical security) are met, higher-level needs come into play, which also increasingly create optionalities. The impending loss of higher-value states can also trigger fear and thus be a driver (in the sense of moving away from motivation).

The ambivalent impact of away-from motivations

Away-from motivations are the strongest motivations. If I want to avoid something, I may double my effort. More than any other emotion, fear motivates us to take immediate action. Threatening scenarios that I want to avoid can often be maintained over longer periods of time.

It is even possible to consciously install these strong away-from motivations: Motivational gurus like Anthony Robbins use this mechanism to quickly create motivation. For this effect the so-called “Dickens pattern” (from NLP) is used. (We strongly advise against this due to the associated disadvantages / side effects!)

There are serious disadvantages associated with away-from motivations:

  • Strong away-from motivations often lead to tunnel vision (i.e., neglect of other important needs).
  • Away-from motivations are almost always at odds with other towards motivations. For example, avoiding poverty leads to a fixation on poverty and loss scenarios, making it difficult to enjoy wealth.
  • Away from motivations fade away when I feel far enough away from loss or deficit. This can lead to a “sawtooth pattern” of motivation. For example, fear of impoverishment could mean that I only work when the account is in the red, but motivation is lost as soon as a large order comes in again. As a result, the motivation becomes unstable and there is a fluctuation between working under high pressure (away from motivation) and a significant loss of motivation.

Recommended procedure in coaching

Clarification of motivation before goal setting

In coaching, the following procedure is effective, which typically only takes a few hours. It is important that conflicts of motivation are clarified before goals are set or motivation is strengthened. Clarification of motivation is the basis for goal setting and enables a congruent strengthening of motivation.

Step 1

Motivation Inventory

Review / assessment for important areas of life (profession, private life etc.)

  • Towards motivation
  • Away-from motivation
Step 2

Clearing all way-of motivations

  • Coaching to process all important away-from motivations
  • If necessary, additional specific coaching or therapeutic approaches
Step 3

Finding the intrinsic motivations

  • Sensing needs and Impulses
  • Generating ideas
  • Testing desirabilty / congruence of options
  • Finding your passions
Step 4

Decide and set goals

Clean Statement of goals

  • SMART goals
  • Clearing of trade-offs / conflicts
  • Set timing of the goals
  • Overall planning

Motivational assessment – What are your drivers / motivating factors?

The following test analyses and assess your motivational factors at work.

Motivation in Your Professional Role