Cultivating a Self-Motivated Workforce: The Choice, Community and Competence of an Injury-Free Culture

“The best kind of pride is that which compels people to do their very best work, even if no one is watching.”

At times, most people need an external accountability intervention to keep them motivated. Psychologists call these “extrinsic motivators,” and managers use them to keep employees on track.

Sometimes people develop self-motivation within the context of an external accountability system. In other words, it's possible to establish conditions that facilitate self-accountability and self-motivation. This article specifies practical ways to make this happen in a work culture, as gleaned from research in the behavioral and social sciences. It also is the theme of “When No One's Watching: Living and Leading Self-Motivation,” coauthored by Bob Veazie.1

SELF-MOTIVATION FOR SAFETY

Without safety regulations, policies and external accountability systems, many more workers would get hurt or killed. Employers and safety leaders need extrinsic controls to hold people accountable to perform safe behavior and avoid at-risk behavior. Why? Because the desired safe behaviors are relatively inconvenient, uncomfortable and inefficient. And, the soon, certain, positive consequences (or intrinsic reinforcers) of at-risk behavior often overpower the employee's self-motivation to be as safe as possible.

Here's the key question. What can we do to support — rather than impede — the self-motivation needed to perform behaviors not intrinsically reinforced by soon, certain and positive consequences? Practical answers can be derived from behavioral science, especially research conducted by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan.2

Deci and Ryan affirm that we have three basic psychological needs — autonomy, relatedness and competence — and when these needs are satisfied, we are self-motivated. According to Deci, “Self-motivation, rather than external (or extrinsic) motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior and lasting change.”3

Autonomy — Autonomy is the condition or quality of being self-governing or having personal control. I previously have described this as a person state related to one's propensity to actively care for the safety and health of others.4 Autonomous behavior is self-initiated, self-endorsed and authentic. It reflects your true values and intentions. This attribute also has been referred to as “choice,”1 and there is plenty of research showing that people are more self-motivated when they have opportunities to choose among action alternatives.5

Relatedness — The innate need for relatedness reflects “the need to love and be loved, to care and be cared for … to feel included, to feel related.”6 This is analogous to the state of belongingness, which I believe is another person state influencing a person's propensity for actively caring for the safety and welfare of others.7 However, we use the term “community” to reflect this state because the concept of community is more encompassing than relatedness or belongingness.1

As explained by Peter Block and M. Scott Peck, a community perspective reflects systems thinking and interdependency beyond the confines of family and work teams.8,9 It's an actively-caring mindset for human kind in general — a connectedness with others that transcends political differences and prejudices, and profoundly respects and appreciates diversity.

Competence — Several researchers of human motivation have proposed that people naturally enjoy being able to solve problems and successfully complete worthwhile tasks.10 In their view, people are self-motivated to learn, explore possibilities, understand what's going on and participate in achieving worthwhile goals. The label for this fundamental human motive is “competence.” In Deci's words, “All of us are striving for mastery, for affirmations of our own competence.”11

Motivation psychologists assume the desire for competence is self-initiating and self-rewarding. Behavior that increases feelings of competence is self-directed and does not need extrinsic or extra reinforcement to keep it going. In this case, feeling competent to do worthwhile work motivates continued effort. In other words, when people feel more successful or competent, their self-motivation increases. As one behavioral scientist put it, “People are not successful because they are motivated; they are motivated because they have been successful.”12

SELF-MOTIVATION

We use the C-words — choice, community and competence — as labels for the three evidence-based person states that determine self-motivation. Interpersonal and environmental conditions that enhance these states, presumed to be innate needs by some psychologists, increase self-motivation.13 Motivation researchers have offered the following 10 guidelines for increasing self-motivation by affecting one or more of the three person states (or needs) defined above.

Editor's Note: For more detail about these guidelines and real-world examples, read When No One's Watching: Living and Leading Self-Motivation.)

  1. Provide a rationale for behavior that is not naturally reinforcing. Thus, safety regulations should be accompanied with a meaningful explanation.

  2. Show empathy by acknowledging, “People might not want to do what they are being asked to do.”14 For example, admit the required safety-related behaviors are relatively inconvenient and uncomfortable, but given the reasonable rationale provided, the personal response cost is worthwhile.

  3. Use language suggesting minimal external pressure. For example, the common phrase “safety is a condition of employment” reduces the perception of autonomy, whereas the slogan “safety is a corporate value we can live with” implies personal authenticity and interpersonal relatedness.

  4. Provide opportunities for choice. The term “participative management” means employees have choice during the planning, execution and evaluation of their jobs.

  5. Set autonomy-supportive rules by soliciting opinions and suggestions from those affected by those regulations.

  6. Customize performance goals with individuals and work teams. The most effective goals are SMART: S=specific, M=motivational, A=achievable, R=relevant and T=trackable.15

  7. Administer rewards and recognition programs to express appreciation for demonstrations of competence, but limit use of “if-then” incentive/reward programs.

  8. Communicate to boost a sense of competence and correct with care. Be non-directive, actively listen to excuses and emphasize the positive over the negative.

  9. To increase a sense of community, increase team-building discussions, group goal-setting and feedback sessions, and group celebrations for process and outcome achievements.

  10. Implement strategies for increasing interpersonal trust in the workplace. The following C-words capture the essence of building both trust and community: communication, caring, candor, consistency, commitment, consensus and character.

An injury-free culture requires people to do the right things for safety when working and driving alone with no one watching to hold them accountable. Such self-accountability requires self-motivation. This research-based paper introduced practical ways to facilitate the self-motivation needed to achieve and sustain an injury-free workplace.

For reference notes for this article, please see the next page.


E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., is an alumni distinguished professor at Virginia Tech and a senior partner, Safety Performance Solutions. His newest book, co-authored with Bob Veazie, MBA, is When No One's Watching: Living & Leading Self-Motivation.

Notes

  • Geller, E.S., & Veazie, R.A. (2010). When no one’s watching: Living and leading self-motivation. Newport, VA: Make-A-Difference, LLC.
  • Deci, E.L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum; Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Book; Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1995). Intrinsic motivation and self-determinism in human behavior. New York, Plenum; Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determinism theory and the foundation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-75.
  • Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books, p. 9.
  • Geller, E.S. (1994). Ten principles for achieving a Total Safety Culture. Professional Safety, 39(9), 18-25; Geller, E.S. (2001). The psychology of safety handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; Geller, E.S. (2005). People-based safety: The source. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training Technologies Corp.
  • Geller, E.S. (2001). The psychology of safety handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; Ludwig, T.D., & Geller, E.S. (2001). Intervening to improve the safety of occupational driving: A behavior-change model and review of empirical evidence. New York, NY: The Haworth Press, Inc.; Monty, R.A., & Perlmuter, L.C. (1975). Persistence of the effect of choice on paired-associate learning. Memory & Cognition, 3, 183-187; Perlmuter, L.C., Monty, R.A., & Kimble, G.A. (1971). Effect of choice on paired-associate learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 91, 47-58; Steiner, I.D. (1970). Perceived freedom. In L. Berkowitz, L. (Ed.). Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 5, New York: Academic Press.
  • White, R.W. (1959). Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence. Psychological Review, 66, 297-321.
  • Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books, p. 66.
  • Chance, P. (2008). The teacher’s craft: The 10 essential skills of effective teaching. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
  • Geller, E.S. (1996). The psychology of safety: How to improve behaviors and attitudes on the job. Radnor, PA: The Chilton Book Company; Geller, E.S. (1998). Understanding behavior-based safety: Step-by-step methods to improve your workplace (Second Edition). Neenah, WI: J.J. Keller & Associates, Inc; Geller, E.S. (2001). The psychology of safety handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; Geller, E.S. (2005). People-based safety: The source. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training and Technologies Corporation; Geller, E.S., Perdue, S.R., & French, A. (2004) Behavior-based safety coaching: Ten guidelines for successful application. Professional Safety, 49(7), 42-49; Krause, T.R., Hidley, J.H., & Hodson, S.J. (1996). The behavior-based safety process: Managing improvement for an injury-free culture (Second Edition). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold; McSween, T.E. (2003). The values-based safety process: Improving your safety culture with a behavioral approach (Second Edition). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold; Weigand, D.M. (2007). Exploring the role of emotional intelligence in behavior-based safety coaching. Journal of Safety Research, 38, 391-398.
  • Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books, p. 88.
  • Geller, E.S. (1994). Ten principles for achieving a Total Safety Culture. Professional Safety, 39(9), 18-25; Geller, E.S. (2001). The psychology of safety handbook. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; Geller, E.S. (2005). People-based safety: The source. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training Technologies Corp.
  • Block, P. (2008). Community: The structure of belonging. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  • Peck, M.S. (1979). The different dream: Community making and peace. New York: Simm & Schuster.
  • Deming, W.E. (1986). Out of the crisis. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study; Deming, W.E. (1993). The new economics for industry, government, education. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study.
  • Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday.
  • Covey, S.R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.
  • Geller, E.S., & Veazie, R.A. (2009). The courage factor: Leading people-based culture change. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training and Technologies Corporation.
  • Geller, E.S. (2005). People-based safety: The source. Virginia Beach, VA: Coastal Training Technologies Corp., pp.95-98.
  • Deci, E.L. (1975). Intrinsic motivation. New York: Plenum; Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Book; Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1995). Intrinsic motivation and self-determinism in human behavior. New York, Plenum; Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determinism theory and the foundation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-75.
  • Deci, E.L., & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books, p. 104.
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