Playing to our strengths

Motivation to perform

Thinking back to school or university what is it that we remember? Usually, it isn’t the material we invested the most time in learning to pass our exams but the stuff we were motivated to read about and understand because of our interest. Our memories serve us well in this regard, letting in and storing things that signal interest, enjoyment, and connection.

There are two types of motivation – internally driven, intrinsic and externally driven, extrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation

This means doing something for a separate consequence like to be rewarded, to please someone or to avoid negative consequences. Intrinsic motivation means doing something because it is interesting, enjoyable and aligns with us internally.

In a work context, extrinsic motivation is associated with financial rewards or scores on performance reviews. Whilst intrinsic motivation energises us to perform because of our connection with the task itself. Both types of motivation aid performance, but to unlock maximum performance, intrinsic motivation is the key. Studies have shown that those who are intrinsically motivated to do a task perform better than those extrinsically motivated. In fact, providing an extrinsic motivation like a reward for performance has been found to reduce motivation in individuals intrinsically motivated to perform. Reward is seen as a source of external influence which undermines intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation, playing to our strengths

We are intrinsically motivated to do things we enjoy, are interested in and connect with us internally. It intuitively follows that it will be both effective and rewarding to us to spend our time doing the things we are intrinsically motivated to do. We don’t need to push ourselves to get started, we are curious and eager to go. When we are doing the work, we are fully focused – the task is just the right level of challenging and interesting to enable us to naturally switch off any distractions. The state of mind when we are totally involved and everything else around us disappears into the background defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as flow.

It is easy to see this in action in children, when given the freedom to choose how to spend their time, you can watch them go off and do something that they enjoy and become entirely engrossed in it. I see this with my son who can sit for hours, alone, creating things out of anything he can find about the house. While my daughter prefers to solve puzzles in connection with another person who she can learn from.

As adults though so much of our energy is spent satisfying extrinsic motivations to ensure that our practical needs and those of our families are met. We can often lose sight of our intrinsic motivators… but they are there and there is much potential in discovering them.

Flow happens when challenge and skill are in equilibrium. When our work challenges us at just the right level to maximise the use of our strengths we achieve a state of flow, also known as, mindful challenge. The productivity of the state of flow maximises our performance on the task in hand.

Strong leadership

The strongest leaders don’t necessarily have the most strength instead they optimise those that they have and integrate with the strengths of those around them. In doing so they enable the performance of the team to be greater than the sum of the parts.

Identifying and appreciating the unique strengths of each team member is an essential ingredient. It is a win-win, enabling engaged, energized, and motivated employees to play their part in maximising team performance. Sharing this practice with your team enables them to follow suit. Enabling them to feel empowered to volunteer to take on a task that matches their individual strength and to ask for help when the match is not quite right.

Putting this into practice

Step 1: Identify your strengths and the strengths of your team and colleagues

Set aside time to spend with your team focused on talking about cross-team strengths. Doing this away from the usual work meetings and ideally in a different setting helps to shift mindset and enables people to think more widely of what they do well outside of their work role.

It can help to have a starting point to bounce ideas from particularly for more humble or quieter team members that find it more difficult to open up about their own strengths. Tools like, Strengths Profile, are a great way to do this. Ideally, individuals would spend time with a coach understanding and reflecting on their own strengths ahead of the session. Strengths Profile doesn’t just identify strengths, it also distinguishes between strengths that energise and those that drain. This helps us to identify the strengths we are intrinsically motivated by and that can help us to achieve flow.

The chart below provides some ideas to help individuals and teams to think about their own strengths and those of their colleagues.

  • Childhood Memories: What do you remember doing as a child that you still do now?
  • Energy: What activities make you feel good doing them?
  • Authenticity: When do you feel most like the real you?
  • Ease: What activities come naturally to you? Excel without trying?
  • Attention: Where do you naturally pay attention?
  • Rapid Learning: What things have you picked up quickly, learning them effortlessly?
  • Motivation: What motivates you? What do you do for the love of doing?
  • Voice: When do you notice a shift in your passion, energy, engagement
  • Words and phrases: When do you say phrases like ‘I love to…’ or ‘It’s just great when?’
  • To-do lists: What gets done before it makes your to-do list?

Step 2) Maximise the opportunities for people to play to their strengths

When a new task or project comes up, take time to carefully consider task and role allocation. With the learning from Step 1, the information will be there, and it is now about putting it into practice. It may delay getting started as it means ensuring the right players are doing the right tasks as opposed to just looking at capacity. This may mean shifting people around before getting started. Once in place though, it will mean that each person is motivated intrinsically to get the job done, maximising the chance of success. Making time to consider this with every task will make it a habit for both you and your team.

Step 3) Set longer-term goals and objectives that match strengths

When thinking about personal or team objectives consider the strengths that energise you and your team. Having objectives set around these will motivate longer-term performance and increase overall role satisfaction and in turn, performance.

If you are interested in learning more, contact [email protected]

References: Deci, Edward L. (2016) Intrinsic Motivation: The Inherent Tendency to Be Active Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2002) Flow

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