Motivation–a little round table

In my other life, I am a biology teacher at a community college.  Today’s writing is the text from a letter which I sent to my supervisor explaining why I was so excited to receive a small table for my office.  This small token actually changed my motivation toward the work I am doing there.  I wanted to explore why this gesture changed my emotion state.  I tried to capture some of my thoughts in the letter to my supervisor. 

November 20, 2012

The delivery of a 30-inch round table to my office provided me with an unexpected motivational boost. The size of the boost relative to the size of table caused me to look
more closely.

Workplace performance experiences have long told us that money is the primary motivator for improved performance.  However, controlled psychological studies on motivation, and a plethora of examples from the modern business world, suggest that for cognitive work money is actually not the primary motivator for better performance.  In fact, for cognitive work, money rewards actually reduce the level of performance relative to performance by individuals who receive a small or even no reward for the same brain-work.  

Let’s put this out on the table first—Employees should be paid enough that they don’t have to think too much about money.  Additional motivators have no impact without a strong foundation. We want to focus on growth, not getting out of a hole. We are probably at that threshold where money, or the lack thereof, is affecting our performance.  That is, the added motivators are having less of an impact on improved performance than they used to.

But let’s put that aside and assuming the base pay was not an issue, what motivates people to do more?  Motivation expert, Daniel Pink, author of “Drive,” “A Whole
New Mind” and “Flip”, suggests three motivators—

  • Autonomy
  • Challenge and Mastery
  • Purpose

I agree with these, but before going in-depth, I would like to add three that make me motivated, but given the lack of psychological studies, might not apply to everyone.

  • Working toward a vision
  • Change
  • Being part of a team

In my exploration to understand the emotional lift, let me define each of these in my own way and tell you how the 30-inch table might have tapped into each. 

The faculty role is ideal for meeting the first three motivators (and is perhaps the reason why we have been willing to let salaries drop so far). 

Autonomy is the ability to make our own decisions.  The classroom professor is perhaps one
of the most independent roles available to any professional.  We have “academic freedom” and
therefore, outside of legalities, receive little to no direction from administration or colleagues on methods or content.  The independent business person may be seen as even more autonomous, but they in fact, are strongly beholden to their customers. Besides the moral obligations to give them a quality experience, we frankly have far more ‘power’ over our customers than does a business person.  The high value we place on autonomy and the extraordinary amount of it that we have is probably one of the reasons that any changes that appear to threaten that autonomy are met with much distaste, and manifests itself in apathy at best, anger at worst.  

I decided that I wanted a table in my office, and this independent decision was supported.  My need for autonomy was fulfilled.

Higher education is all about challenge and mastery.  We are teaching in a field that we love
and that we, as lifelong learners, want to understand and master.  Most of my motivation for teaching comes from the fact that teaching helps me to better master the concepts and
content of my subject matter—here I am writing to you in effort to do just that in regard to my motivations.   For most faculty, after 5, 10, 15 years, the subject matter content is not the challenge we need to master.  Our (read ‘my’) challenge is how to teach it.  

I wanted the table, because in an attempt to master the challenge of engaging students, I want a space that invites students to come in and stay for awhile to engage on their studies.  They study on desks at home, why not study on a desk in my office?

Purpose seems to be the most obvious motivator for a community college professor. For me it is the most lacking of these three accepted motivators.   Perhaps lack of purpose is the biggest de-motivator for me because it is the one that has changed the most, and I haven’t kept up with it. Purpose to me is about being part of a ‘purpose’ bigger than myself.  Given this definition and that everything is part of something else, purpose exists at multiple levels—I derive my purpose as a community college professor from the purpose of the college, and the college also has its “personal” purpose for being and doing derived from its higher level.  The grind comes when purposes are not aligned.  Lack of alignment comes not from real misalignment, but from perceived misalignment.  That is, if the purpose of one or the other is not known, then it is easy to assume the sources of friction are a lack of alignment. 

The table was a demonstration of aligned purpose.  The table helps me to fulfill what I perceive to be my purpose within the context of the college, and the college agreed.

The second list is probably less clear because they are less universal.  A driving vision is what helps me to prioritize what I will do each day.  Given my list of important activities and my list of urgent activities, I try to choose those that move me toward the vision rather than lack any contribution to that vision or even move me in the opposite direction.  I have been unable to
vision myself doing the same sort of teaching that I have been doing for the last 15 years.   However, everyday 95% of my teaching activities continue to move me into that
direction.   There is very little that I do that is important (my definition of important being to move me toward my vision).  Most of what I do is urgent.  I have to enter grades, order books, do make up exams, prepare handouts, prepare for class next week, tomorrow, this afternoon.

My vision is to be a ‘learning facilitator’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’.   The
acquisition of a table was an important activity moving me toward that vision because it gives me the opportunity to engage students from somewhere besides the stage. 

Change.  Yes, I know this is not the motivator for most.  But I have learned that discomfort is the primary means by which I am motivated.   Therefore, I try to use change as a motivator to improve myself.  I have adopted the idea that change is an opportunity for me to become something better. 

The table is really not a threatening change. I am not complaining about the loss of space. No one hoisted this change upon me.  I asked for it.  But given the change, I am looking for the improvement of myself that will come from having this table. 

Being part of a team fits well with being part of a larger purpose. The team can consist of those with who do the same job that I do; a team can consist of faculty, staff and our supervisors, or it could be faculty from across campus, etc. However, we are mostly teams in spirit, but not teams in physical reality-not even virtually.  We assume that all members of our spiritual team have a common purpose, but this is not really clear.   Without an aligned purpose to guide us, it is difficult to hold those teams together to move toward that vision.

The table hasn’t done much to help me increase my interactions with my team except that they’ve come by to see it on their way to class.  Perhaps we’ll bring it into the hallway and have a group meeting. 

If we think of motivators in terms of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, money might be the lowest level and these six I have addressed are somewhere in the layers above that basic need.  The 30-inch round table meets some of those higher-level motivators, providing the temporary boost to spirit.  In the end, I am not sure if this action has increased my expectations and will lead to de-motivation because they don’t come, or if this table is a sign of other motivators to come that will keep us striving to do better.

Thanks for reading to the end.



Jonathan Shaver