“Never let formal education get in the way of your learning.” - Mark Twain

I’ve used this Mark Twain quotation to stimulate discussion in my university classes. My students are quick to agree with my proposition that course assignments, deadlines, tests, and grades detract from their learning. The implied competition established by using a normal curve to assign grades stifles conversation and collaboration about the course material.

Standard evaluation approaches in college classes reduced self-motivation and resultant learning, according to a review of studies published in the 1995 book, “Why We Do What We Do,” by Edward Deci. For example: Students given periodic quizzes for only self-monitoring showed superior conceptual understanding and scored higher on a final exam than did students who took the same quizzes for evaluation purposes.

My students rally behind the notion to stop using tests to decide A-to-F grades. Then I ask: “How many of you would read the textbook and attend class regularly if your learning of course material was not periodically assessed with exams graded from A-to-F?”

Some extrinsic motivators are needed to keep studies on track, my students concede. But sometimes self-motivation (to learn) can be established within the context of an external accountability system (grades). Let’s see how this applies to the world of workplace safety.

Self-motivation for safety

Without safety regulations, policies and external accountability systems, many more workers would get hurt or killed. Just like university teachers, employers and safety pros need extrinsic controls to hold people accountable.

Why? Because the desired safe behaviors are relatively inconvenient, uncomfortable and inefficient. Plus, the soon, certain, positive consequences (or intrinsic reinforcers) of at-risk behavior overpower self-motivation to work safely. Shortcuts get the job done quicker, for instance.

So what can we do to boost and not block the self-motivation needed to perform behaviors not intrinsically reinforced by soon, certain and positive consequences?

Human needs and self-motivation

We all have three basic psychological needs, and when these needs are satisfied, we are self-motivated, Deci affirms. Specifically, we become self-motivated when our needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence are fulfilled.

Autonomy — we need to be self-governing or have personal control. Autonomous behavior is self-initiated, self-endorsed and authentic. It reflects one’s true values and intentions.

Relatedness —the innate need “to love and be loved, to care and be cared for…to feel included, to feel related” (p. 88).

Competence — the need for self-efficacy is fundamental to a number of theories of human motivation. “All of us are striving for mastery, for affirmations of our own competence” (p. 66).

Bottom line: “Self-motivation, rather than external (or extrinsic) motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change,” according to Deci (p. 9).

How to increase self-motivation

Our perceptions of autonomy, relatedness and competence determine our self-motivation. And these “need states,” so critical for self-motivated behavior, are affected by interpersonal and environmental conditions. Here are seven guidelines offered by Deci to increase self-motivation by satisfying one or more of our innate needs.
  1. Provide a rationale for behavior not naturally reinforcing. Safety regulations should be presented with a meaningful explanation.
  2. Show empathy. Acknowledge “people might not want to do what they are being asked to do” (p. 104). Admit required safety-related behaviors are relatively inconvenient and uncomfortable, but provided with the reasonable rationale, the personal “cost” is worthwhile.
  3. Use language suggesting minimal external pressure. Set the stage for action (and feelings of self-control) by expressing expectations rather than mandates. The common phrase, “Safety is a condition of employment,” reduces autonomy. The slogan, “Safety is a corporate value we can live with,” pulls people together and authenticates their own personal contribution.
  4. Provide opportunities for choice. “Participative management” means employees have choice during the planning, execution and evaluation of their jobs. Deci concedes that some management decisions cannot include choice from subordinates. So, he maintains, “people adapt to being controlled and act as if they don’t want the very thing that is integral to their nature — namely, the opportunity to be autonomous” (p. 148).
  5. Set autonomy-supporting limits. Even safety regulations can support autonomy. Make behavioral boundaries or limits as wide as possible, and within that space allow choice, Deci recommends.

    Years ago, I consulted with a company that required all employees to wear safety glasses and steel-toed shoes all day, regardless of their work area or assignment. The rationale for this gate-to-gate PPE regulation was it eliminated the chance of misplacing or forgetting to use PPE.

    Many employees objected vociferously. “We’re being treated like children,” they complained. The office staff was particularly put off, because their work never called for PPE use.

    This employee outrage was mitigated when the company agreed to purchase two pairs of comfortable safety shoes and glasses per each of 600 employees. Employees accepted their lack of autonomy, and the company incurred significant financial and implementation costs. Employee self-motivation likely suffered, too.
  6. Customize individualized performance goals with relevant employees. Search ISHN’s archives using the keywords “SMART goals” at www.ishn.com for numerous past columns describing this strategy.
  7. Use rewards and recognition programs to express appreciation for demonstrations of competence, but not to motivate people. Again, search ISHN’s archives using keywords “rewards and recognition” for many specific ways I’ve detailed to deliver effective rewards and recognition.

To conclude

Do you have a sense of déjà vu here? These seven guidelines are familiar to readers of myISHNcolumn, since I’ve delineated each of these before — just search those archives. What’s most valuable, though, is to understand the theoretical foundation of self-motivation. Whatever the situation, consider those three basic human needs. How you satisfy them could have a remarkable impact on your own and others’ self-motivation.

Go beyond these guidelines. Hold open discussions so you and your employees can define existing and potential conditions — rules, policies, cultural norms — that influence perceptions of autonomy, relatedness and competence. Then entertain ways to modify these conditions to give self-motivation a shot in the arm.

Take these principles home with you. Issues of “parental control,” “behavioral expectations” and even your own self-regulated “self-talk” can be examined and discussed to find ways to encourage autonomy, relatedness and competency, and greater self-motivation.