Perspectives on Motivation (Part I)

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Ego-driven Motivation

Motivation is a subject which is extensively studied in business and management. It is now recognised that the productivity, moral and job-satisfaction of employees depends primarily on motivation. In this series we try to present a synthesis of the western-managerial and eastern-spiritual insights on motivation. We will first discuss the principles of modern theories on motivation.

Modern Motivational Theories

There is a growing recognition among management thinkers and professionals that motivation is not something which can be generalised or standardised like McDonald’s hamburger; it requires a clear understanding of each employee as a human being and a flexible application of this understanding according to the unique motivational needs of the employee.

The first step in motivation is to understand the psychological and environmental factors which drive the behaviour and action of employees and inspire them to excel in their work. There are two major factors involved in motivation. First is the level of mental and emotional development of the individual which determine his or her inner needs, aspirations, values and attitudes to work, life and action. Second is the economic, social and cultural condition or environment which determine the aspirations, values and attitudes he or she imbibes from the society. These two factors not only vary with each individual, group or nation but also change with the progressive evolution of the individual and the group. Modern motivation theories of the West have identified many human motives like the need for survival, security, self-esteem, affiliation, power, growth, achievement, self-actualisation.

The second step is to apply this understanding to create a dynamic work-environment which promotes desirable behaviour and discourages undesirable behaviour. And what is desirable behaviour depends on the goals, perceptions and values of the management of the organisation. In practical terms this involves a system of incentives for desirable behaviour and disincentives for undesirable behaviour. The incentives may be material like money or non-material like promotion or career growth, more power and responsibility, greater freedom, better working conditions or opportunities for self or professional development. The modern managerial ideal of motivation is self-motivation. The self-motivated employee doesn’t need any external awards for getting motivated because he takes joy and finds fulfilment in the work itself.

Pamper the Ego with Rewards

The basic assumption of modern motivational theories is that human nature or the ego is an obstinate seeker of rewards or as the management guru Tom Peter puts it “suckers for praise”. The task of motivation is to pamper the ego with rewards for desirable behaviour or performance and threaten it with disincentives for unwanted behaviour and performance. This assumption is to a large extent valid, for the ego is our lower nature which needs a constant dose of stimulating recognition to remain motivated. It is now recognised that Money or monetary rewards no longer satisfies when the basic material needs and luxuries of the individual are fulfiled. But when the desire for money ceases to be the motivator it takes higher forms at the social and psychological levels in the guise of desire for power, prestige, position, authority, status, career advancement or at least a sheer recognition in the form of a word of appreciation, a pat, or a smile or some form of fondling of the child of vanity in us. Even when we are able to get rid of this impulse for reward from the conscious mind it enters surreptitiously into the subconscious and from there rises again in the form of constant self-flattering, patting itself for its real or imagined virtues or talents!

Even the ideal of self-motivation can be full of ego without any moral or spiritual element in it; it may be based on the narrow personal fulfilment or happiness of the ego taking joy in a self-actualising work. So the self-motivated self-actualiser can be as ego-centric, or even more, as those who are supposedly at the lower levels of motivation.

But as Sri Aurobindo points out “ego is the helper and ego is the bar”. So modern motivational theories are valid for those who are in that stage of evolution where ego is the helper at their evolutionary progress. At present, the number of people at this stage of development may be very large or even in the majority. But there are already a growing number of people who are seeking an inner moral and spiritual fulfilment in work and their number is likely to increase and multiply with the rapid spiritual awakening of humanity in the future. And for this growing group of seekers of inner fulfilment, modern motivational theories and practices based on ego may not be entirely effective because many of them may be at a higher stage of development where ego is not a helper but an obstacle to their further development. For the higher levels of inner fulfilment comes not by nurturing the ego and remaining within its narrow confines but by rising beyond the ego into the vastness of a higher consciousness.

So the need of the future is not an ego-driven motivation but an ego-transcending motivation. This is where the importance of the Indian spiritual paradigm on motivation, which we will be discussing in our next article, comes in.