Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Special One

This is the third in a series of blogs discussing the concept of motivation and what its sources might be. Its prompted by a conversation I had with Bee Heller, from The Pioneers. Bee asserts that there are seven different sources of motivation, and is writing about each of them on The Pioneers website. 

We decided I'd write a commentary piece about each one on my own blog, and look at what's happened in organisations I've worked in and with - whether the source of motivation Bee's blog discussed has been used to good effect or been neglected; what's worked well in terms of creating an environment that enhances that motivation; and what's not worked so well or undermined that motivation for people? 

Here's Bee's blog on the subject of standing out from the crowd, quite the opposite from her previous blog about fitting in.  In it, she points to research that says: 

1. People who don’t conform can be perceived as higher status and more competent. 
2. Going against the crowd gives people confidence  
3. Being able to express themselves authentically makes people more engaged and committed to their organisations.  

Bee then argues that people’s motivation to belong and fit in has a stronger influence on their behaviour than their desire to feel significant or special, because people worry about being different in case they’ll feel like the odd one out. For this reason, Bee says, managers need to put extra effort in to encouraging nonconformity, making it ok for people to be themselves and be different; they need to help people identify the unique ways they can contribute to the group; and they need to celebrate the diversity and variety of strengths within their team.

These are interesting points and I would agree with the points made by Bee's research, in that being made to feel special, and somehow unique or different, can be a strong motivator. I would, however, disagree with Bee's assertion that this motivating factor is secondary to the need to fit in or belong.  In fact in all the workplace examples I can think of, including the ones I'll talk about below, being recognised as special or unique has been an exceptionally strong motivator.

I'm including just two here but I do have others.

Firstly an example supporting Bee's research.  An Executive Director I once worked with really stood out as being quite different to anyone else in the organisation.  He was creative, inventive, innovative and other such words.  He thought constantly about the future, but as a consequence not about the present.  He was awesome at initiating new things and bringing new ideas into the organisation, a real blue sky thinker, but unfortunately not at seeing them through to fruition or (often) thinking about the practicalities of implementing his ideas.  He was the only such person in the organisation and yet, irrespective of his position of authority, he was perceived as having a higher status and being more competent than others in the organisation, including other people at the same level as him.  He also was very vocal about his ideas and enjoyed being isolated and having to argue his position - he gained confidence from this and always came across as supremely confident.  And because the organisation gave him time, space and freedom to develop his ideas and express them in very public ways, backing him, he became very committed to the organisation and its causes, a true organisational champion and defender.

He was also one of the most annoying people I've ever worked with, but also someone who despite all that was a good friend too.

So in this example, I'm supportive of Bee's research points.

But I do disagree that the desire to fit in outweighs the desire to be seen as special.  In this I distinguish special from different.

In my other example, an ex colleague has had a torrid time at work.  He's recently joined a new organisation, leaving somewhere where he had built up a great reputation for professionalism over many years and where he was respected for what he brought to the organisation.  He's a very senior finance manager and was the most senior finance professional in his last place, and in theory he is too in his new place, judging by job title and what he tells me is on his job description.

But he's not. Others higher up in the organisation he now works for have done his new job previously and hold similar qualifications, even if they're doing different stuff now.  And it means the professional recognition he got from being the "number one" isn't there any more, and this is made worse by his new peers going to the mentioned higher-ups for financial advice and guidance rather than him, as his job title would befit. He's lost the status that came with being the most senior finance professional.  He no longer feels special or unique, and these were things that motivated him massively.  It looks like he's being sidelined, treated as one of the crowd, and its visibly getting him down - he's lost a lot of confidence, professionally, because he's not respected for his professional opinion.

He also tells me he's also quite different from the new organisational culture. He is used to a command and control style of culture, where manager make decisions in isolation without consulting much and certainly with little communication.  As the senior finance lead he's used to purely managing finance, without interference from other managers, and without having to get involved in other stuff.  His new organisation is the opposite - it has a very open style of communication, expects a very consultative and engaging approach from its manager and as senior finance lead he's expected to get other disciplines involved in his projects and to work with others on their projects too.  His attempts to blaze his own path and do what he's used to have led to some light ridicule within the organisation, and a lot of peer pressure to fit in and do what everyone else does.  He's reacted badly to that, and wants out.  He's demotivated and depressed as a result.  

He also says that when he does try to express his own ideas, and to do things he instinctively knows are right and will work, he is regularly challenged and questioned and his motives doubted, as if he's working against the organisation and is treated very much as an outsider for being even in the slightest bit critical of his new organisation.  He has stopped doing these things now, not because he is motivated to fit in, but because the organisation has drained him of all confidence.  Knowing him well, I know he wants nothing more than to be respected for his professional knowledge, be able to operate as a leader in the way he wants to, and to be able to express his ideas and opinions openly.

He doesn't get that in his new organisation, and after just a few months he's looking to leave.

So in this example the desire to fit in is not outweighing the desire to be seen as special (or even as different). My ex colleagues motivators are purely about being seen as special and to be respected for that.  If he were motivated by the desire to fit in, he'd fit in, and he wouldn't be unhappy or looking to leave.

But Bee also points out that managers need to recognise when people ARE different or unique, and to lead teams in a way that encourages that diversity.

This I do agree with. In my previous organisation we recognised the uniqueness of the Executive Director, and encouraged him.  And that worked.  In my ex colleagues previous organisation, that also seemed to happen from what I know.  In his new organisation, conformity is the rule and those who are different are singled out for ridicule and other subtle attempts to undermine confidence.

And sadly I've got other examples where this happens too.

So my view is also that organisations need to recognise diversity, difference and respect those who bring new ideas or different ways of working to the organisation, no matter what they are.

In terms of my ex colleague, he'll leave soon anyway.  I wish him all the best in his quest to once again become "The Special One".

What do you think? Does the desire to fit in outweigh the desire to be recognised for being special and unique?

Till next time…

Gary

PS in other news, I've been at my own organisation now for a whole year - its been the quickest year of my life!