Home All Motivation: Fluctuations and Levers

Motivation: Fluctuations and Levers

written by Kathryn Britton 7 March 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Many years ago, one of my fellow workers gradually became less and less motivated. He’d come to work, but spend his time reading the paper, making private phone calls, or hanging out in the break room. Since his job involved long-term work on several projects, it wasn’t immediately clear how unproductive he had become.

When it began to be clear, nothing happened. Nobody spoke to him about his performance. The newspaper reading, phone calls, and long breaks continued.

After awhile, he shook off whatever was bothering him, got back to the job at hand, and became very productive again. But he had gained a reputation as a slacker. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get past it. He had to leave the organization to get his next promotion.

Here are some of the lessons I learned from my friend’s career trajectory:

Negative Feedback

Plant Motivation negative approriate feedback ppnd happinessWithholding negative feedback does nobody a favor — not the person who needs it nor the bystanders. Everybody starts wondering if management notices or cares.

Meaningful feedback does not have to be positive. As Barbara Fredrickson’s research shows, appropriate negative feedback helps people learn and improve. Notice the emphasis on appropriate: appropriate negative feedback is specific, not personal, and contains suggestions for improvement. In this case, appropriate feedback might include suggesting ways to make up for missed deliverables. It would not include character judgments like “You’re a slacker.”

Motivation Fluctuates

Individual motivation rises and falls over the course of a career. Sometimes motivation is high. People feel competent. They have others to please or serve. They believe their jobs are worth doing. They are given leeway to figure out how to do the job themselves. Sometimes, motivation sinks. Such fluctuation seems to be a fact of life.

Researchers Deci and Ryan suggest the following levers for improving motivation:

  1. Competence: Are jobs so difficult that people feel they can’t do them? Work on task enablement and increasing self-efficacy. Have people become so competent that their jobs aren’t challenging enough? Work on appropriate increases in challenge.
  2. Relationship: Do people feel resentment towards those who are assigning the work? Perhaps those relationships can be repaired or perhaps they need new supervisors. Are there relationships outside work that aren’t going well? Are there others that they want to please?
  3. Valued work: Do people feel that the work is meaningless, except for the paycheck? There are ways for people to discover meaning in what they do.
  4. Autonomy: Do people feel like others are breathing down their necks? Do they have little sense of control? Or on the other extreme, do they feel left too much to their own devices? My favorite jobs were ones that I designed myself, but sometimes I felt a bit lost. I was lucky to have a supervisor who sat me down every two weeks to ask if I were working on the “Big Rocks” – the highest priority tasks. After conversations with her, I generally went back to work with renewed vigor.

Tools Change Motivation PPND HappinessDifferent people in the same organization will respond to different motivation levers. All of these levers are available to work on motivating yourself as well as others. Assume you’re feeling a low level of motivation right now for something you know you need to do – such as look for a new job. Do you need to increase your sense of competence, perhaps by breaking up the job into smaller pieces or by reflecting on past successes? Can you think about someone you want to please or who believes in you? Do you believe the activity is meaningful? Do you have just the right amount of autonomy? Often these questions inspire pathways to meaningful change.

Competence requires Self-Efficacy

Swim motivation change ppnd happinessSelf-efficacy is defined as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise influence over events that affect their lives.” Bandura’s research defines four good levers for working on self-efficacy.

  1. Mastery experiences are the best means to develop self-efficacy. Give people challenging tasks, but provide the support they need to succeed. No throwing people in the deep end of the pool to see if they sink or swim!
  2. Vicarious mastery also works. Help people find role models very much like themselves so that they can identify with successful behaviors. This is one of the many values of diversity in the workplace.
  3. Social persuasion: Recognize small successes and help people capitalize on them so that they become more aware of what they have already achieved. Help them interpret small failures in ways that are not permanent and pervasive.
  4. Interpretation of physical symptoms that go with performing difficult tasks. People with self-efficacy interpret butterflies in the stomach before a speech as indicators that they are getting ready to do a great job. People with low self-efficacy interpret the same symptoms as indicators of impending failure. Same symptoms, different interpretations.

Let People Change

Once you have a reputation for poor performance, it is very hard to change in other people’s eyes, even when performance improves. The confirmation bias is in play: people tend to see whatever confirms their existing opinions. They have a harder time acknowledging new behaviors. It’s hard to allow someone to change. When I struggle to give that important space, I remember what a loss it was when my friend left our organization.

Effective feedback, motivation levers, self-efficacy, and giving people a chance to change are among my favorite positive psychology topics.



Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control. Worth Publishers.

Bandura, A. (2008). Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies. Cambridge University Press.

Britton, K. (2008). Motivation and Self-Determination Theory. This is the most popular article in my blog, with about 3500 hits since it was first posted last May.

Britton, K. (2008). Series of blog articles on giving feedback, including one called There is a Place for Appropriate Negativity.

Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2008). Self-Determination Theory: A Macrotheory of Human Motivation, Development, and Health. Canadian Psychology, 49 (3), 182–185

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior (Perspectives in Social Psychology). New York: Plenum.

Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678-686.

Paglis, L. (2008). The “It’s not my fault!” exercise: Exploring the causes and consequences of managers’ explanations for poor performance. Journal of Management Education, 32(5), 613-628.

Images: plant, swim, tools, by David NiBlack under Creative Commons 3.0.

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Scott Asalone 7 March 2009 - 11:30 am

Excellent job of summarizing key psychological necessities of motivation. This is so essential right now for leaders and managers to understand and practice. Many of the companies I’m working with are suffering from employee lack of motivation. They are tired, demotivated, feel that they have no control and so they’ve given up. This is a wonderful compilation of knowledge and skills for any manager to apply in difficult times. Thanks for this great and timely article.

Sherri Fisher 9 March 2009 - 6:11 am

Teachers need to see this article and see how important motivation is to sustaining effort, and that this is a set of symptoms, not a set of moral failings.

Excellent and well-organized information!! Love the levers for self-efficacy concept!


Kathryn Britton 10 March 2009 - 4:17 pm

Thank you, Scott and Sherri,

I believe there is no one-size-fits-all answer to motivation, and somehow I find it liberating to think of motivation rising and falling over the course of a career — without it being a moral failing, in Sherri’s words. I guess that’s called taking the long view!

I think understanding that there are various facets of motivation is an important message for teachers. Perhaps it could also help them take responsibility only for as much of motivation as they have the power to affect — some but not all of it.

And of course, good teachers let people change.



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