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This is a series of posts about motivation, based on Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s Self Determination Theory. In each post, I will talk about one of the three key needs that are linked with intrinsic motivation: Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness.

It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Situation: I’m in the middle of battling a severe case of demotivation, and I’ve summoned the Three Motivation Musketeers – Competence, Autonomy, Relatedness – to my rescue. In the previous posts, Competence and Autonomy have been doing a good job with battling the Monstrous Demotivation Monster, and Relatedness is about to step in to finish the task once and for all.

For some reason I get a real kick out of reading people’s Twitter updates and Facebook status reports. Especially if I’m surfing Twitter and Facebook to avoid doing that-thing-I-should-really-be-working-on. Or in the procrastination vocabulary, if I’m “just about to get started” on that. It’s a lot easier to take on my own demotivating task if I know there’s someone else out there battling theirs at the same time.

And oh, the joy of being able to update or report an achievement! Even if no-one actually comments, I know someone somewhere knows what I’ve accomplished! Yay me!

To me, the power of Relatedness is three-fold. First, there’s the support and acknowledgement that comes from belonging to a like-minded group. Second, there’s the all-important accountability. And third, there’s the more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts idea of pooling your brain power.

1. Belonging

Everyone has an experience of a class, a course or a study group that just clicked. The atmosphere was positive and supportive, and everyone seemed eager to pitch in and do their part. The teacher knew the topic, and was approachable and fair.

Did you feel motivated about the topic of the course or class? Well, duh.

A supportive, trusting environment enhances motivation, because it decreases the amount of energy we spend on being afraid. Whenever I enter a new group of people, be it for school, work or some extracurricular activity, I spend the first few sessions being afraid of making a complete fool of myself.

That eats up a whole bunch of energy I could be spending on other mental processes, like, say, learning.

The teacher (or group leader) plays an important part in this equation, since it’s their responsibility to create a supportive atmosphere in the group. Noticing each student, receiving their remarks with respect, and encouraging positive communication are strategies a teacher can use to create that atmosphere.

Participants are responsible for the group dynamics as well – depending on their age, of course. If a sandbox fight breaks out between five-year-olds, I’d look to the caregivers watching over the situation.

Poor workplace dynamics, though, can’t be blamed solely on the boss, although management does have a big role in creating the group culture of the company. If ten adults notice a problem and none of them does anything about it, there are ten people responsible for letting the problem exist.

So how does all this translate to my battle with the Magnificent Demotivation Monster?

Relatedness is already going through my list of friends, trying to figure out who to call. No matter what the task, I’ve already got a context-independent circle of friends who might well take the time to listen to me rant. If one of them can actually help me out with the task, all the better.

What I mostly need from Relatedness now, though, is the knowledge that I’m not alone. There is someone out there who knows what I’m battling with and cares.

2. Accountability

This is a biggie for anyone who has ever tried to change a habit. Tell one person, or no-one, about your attempt to quit smoking, and you might or might not succeed. Tell fifty people that you’re going to quit smoking, and it’ll be a lot harder for you not to make it.

This, again, boils down to the “not wanting to make a fool of myself” emotion. I don’t want to seem like a person who doesn’t live up to her promises. If I’ve told ten people I’m quitting, I’ll rather shudder through a meeting with them than sneak out for a cigarette. The more people I tell, the less people there are that don’t know, and the more I have to keep to my word, if only to protect my reputation.

It’s also about not wanting to let people down.

Did you ever have a teacher whose lesson you never wanted to miss and whose exams you always wanted to ace, so as to not disappoint the teacher?

In truth, the teacher’s emotions probably didn’t revolve around your success in that particular subject. Sorry to burst the bubble. The main thing is, though, that you thought they did. And that thought kept you working on the project more than on any of the other projects combined.

And by you, again, I mean me. In high school, I did extended physics mostly for this reason. Which is awesome, since I would otherwise never have taken physics seriously. 🙂

So to get Relatedness in your corner on this one, can you come up with someone you really love and respect, and then tell them you’ll be finishing this project by such and such date? Maybe promising them a weekly update on how you’re doing and what kinds of problems are coming up? And then buying them a cup of coffee and lending your ear to whatever it is they want to talk about?

3. Brain power

Sometimes I’m struggling with a task, a translation text, an essay or a project and can’t seem to make a dent in it. The whole thing is full of knots that are tied up into other knots and the whole thing is icky and nasty. I then complain about it to someone, who asks me two questions and points out a loophole I’d missed or a fact I’d forgotten. *ding!* I’m back on track in no time at all.

You can only do so much on your own. When you’re working with someone else, there’s a lot more brain capacity available and more pairs of eyes to pay attention to detail.

You know how you sometimes watch a game show where the contestants have already made it to the second or third stage of the competition, and then start making stupid mistakes? And you’re sitting on the couch going “I can’t believe that idiot is about to lose zillions of dollars by not knowing that stuff!!“? And nearly dialing the “sign up for our game show here” number because you’d certainly win the zillion dollars?

Chances are they know that stuff. It’s in there somewhere, and when they’re watching the show later they know they knew it. At the time, they were just using a lot of their brain power on thoughts like “I hope I don’t screw up” and “I wonder if Mom is watching” and “Oh man, did I just swear on TV?” and “Geesh, that game show host looks like a leprechaun“.

The same phenomenon happens in improvisation games all the time. The person whose turn it is blanks out completely, while the others have a thousand ideas for that particular association. When everyone gets to chip in and blurt out an idea, the story starts to evolve fast and no-one has sole responsibility for the result.

When a group of people pool their brain power on a task, it’s likely that they’ll not only get it done faster, it’ll be better than any of them would have managed on their own. Embracing the collective responsibility for a task will also increase the chances of better group cohesion and mutual accountability. Relatedness has just scored a hat trick on this one and is taking his bows as we speak.

One for all and all for one

Like the original Three Musketeers (or my favorite spin-off, Musket Hounds), these three Motivation Musketeers are awesome on their own. They totally rock at what they’re good at, but they do have some weaknesses. Their best performance, then, comes when you get all three together in your corner.

It would be arrogant to say this is all you’ll ever need to know about motivation. This goes a long way, though, and especially if you have a basic inventory of actions from each of the three Musketeers, you can really develop your self-motivation skills.

Again, if there’s anything that popped up for you while reading this series, I’d love to hear your comments. Until we meet again – keep catching your own insightings!

Love,

Sari

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