Everyone reading this is a member of (or leads) a team of individuals with various personalities and roles.
At multiple times throughout the year, team efficiency and effectiveness likely become strained, with projects not completed on time or to an appropriate level of quality.
In times like these, leadership and teamwork are paramount. Effective time management is promoted and delegation is either employed or re-evaluated to ensure that tasks are appropriately allocated. But, a crucial aspect (which may not be explored as much as it should be) is motivation.
Motivation moves us. It can be the difference between finishing your to-do list and procrastinating.
But before breaking down the needs that can contribute to motivation, it helps to start with a definition.
Intrinsic motivation is more powerful and sustainable. However, it only applies to activities that are appealing or of value to individuals. The challenge can then become how to get people (like your students and coworkers) to value tasks or find them appealing.
Working to motivate others is not an all-or-nothing situation. While enjoyment and value are both motivating factors, focusing on just one can still have positive effects. Student affairs professionals, like faculty, are not always in their positions to teach, and therefore may not enjoy teaching.
Studies have found that if people value teaching — whether for professional gain or the benefit of the students — it can be motivating. The same is true for enjoyment; a career services staff member may not fully understand the value of a first-year experience course, but if they enjoy connecting with students in new ways, their joy can be as equally motivating as another teacher’s value to engage.
That said, combining motivating aspects can prove even more powerful. Staff are optimally motivated and demonstrate peak performance when they both enjoy and value their work.
Extrinsic motivation might seem like it’s an easier aspect to influence or control. But its influence is dependent upon knowing and understanding the people you want to motivate.
Simply providing rewards or punishments (including guilt) may only work for some people in certain situations. Research has shown that extrinsic motivation is most powerful when people can relate to the work they are doing or the people with whom they are doing it.
Remember this when thinking about consequences and rewards for challenging times, like end-of-year checkout work with RAs who want to enjoy their summers.
People are optimally motivated when they feel competent, supported by a community, and in control of their environments. These aspects (competence, relatedness, autonomy) are the underlying needs of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which can be used to better understand intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
So, instead of trying to approach motivation — which is complex and both situational and person-dependent — try to address these three needs with your team:
1. Competence — In order to effectively carry out tasks, SA pros need to be knowledgeable. Does your team (including student employees) know what they need to know for their roles? What about for all of the projects assigned to them?
To help meet this need:
- Provide your team members with education and training to build general capacity and specific skill sets (such as the ones listed here.)
- Assist team members in making connections of transferable skills or parallel projects to build confidence or reinforce experience for special situations or circumstances.
- Leverage performance evaluations and professional development opportunities to be intentional with the content covered.
- Instead of the regular beginning-of-the-year staff training, customize the content and training approach to build competence in the areas that your staff are less knowledgeable or comfortable handling. This will not only build their skill sets, but it will also improve an intervention that otherwise was not meeting specific needs.
2. Relatedness. Connections are important for people and content. Does your team care about or feel a sense of belonging with one another? Do they feel connected to their work?
To help meet this need:
- Build or reinforce connections with people to cultivate community. Use informal conversations, one-on-one meetings, group meetings, and everyday recognition to show that you care about them.
- Connect projects to strategies, goals, objectives, or priorities. This will help your team members to associate value with specific efforts, as well as help others see value in your team’s work.
- Make sure belonging and purpose are mainstay considerations for your meetings, planning sessions, and social interactions. This goes beyond ice breakers; if a sense of belonging is not already related to a team value, make it an ongoing goal or objective.
- Make sure that team meetings open or conclude with a social or recognition-based activity. That way, staff continually get to know one another better and feel valued as individuals.
3. Autonomy. Staff and students inherently want to be in control or at least have some sense of power over their environments. Does your team feel like they have the necessary authority to do their jobs well? Do you create space for teammates to discuss the power dynamics at play?
To help meet this need:
- Don’t just delegate tasks; empower your team members with creative power to execute work on their own. Ask them to come with ideas on how to tackle a project, as opposed to telling them how to do it.
- Amplify teammate voices to other staff (within and outside your area), faculty, or administrators, helping expand the influence and credibility of your team. This can be incredibly powerful with students.
- Periodically set aside time with your team to reflect on power, authority, and influence at work in their roles, in order to identify barriers for mitigation and opportunities for improvement.
- Use long meetings or retreats to engage in transparent conversations with your team. Ask them to articulate their goals and obstacles, inviting discussions on limitations related to power or influence.
- Talk as a team on how to mitigate those barriers, how institutional or societal pressures complicate situations, identify resources to leverage in times of need, and make sure they understand there is space to have these conversations — even if the ability to make or see changes is not guaranteed.
You might start by checking in as to where people are with respect to these needs being met.
While some of the above factors (competence, relatedness, autonomy) may immediately speak to you or pertain to your staff, SDT research underscores the importance of all three.
This intuitively makes sense, as a student who is knowledgeable may not be as motivated to engage in projects as a student who is knowledgeable and believes they have power to act. Similarly, a superior staff member or administrator might have the power to make changes to help your office but may not be inclined to do so without any sense of relatedness to your team or tasks.
While the framing of this post was a bit theory-heavy, the individual needs and implications are relatable. It should be easy to identify gaps or areas for improvement with respect to the motivation aspects of competence, relatedness, and autonomy. You might even see combinations of needs that could be hindering (or helping!) work for yourself or for your team.