The road to change is paved with high motivation…. and curiosity about what's missing?
There are a handful of theories that seem to answer most questions about effective leadership. Deci & Ryan's (2000) Self Determination Theory (SDT) is one of them. It reveals three conditions that humans need to satisfy before they feel truly motivated: competence, autonomy and relatedness (CAR). As change leaders, we can use this insight to identify gaps and lay down the conditions that facilitate motivated commitment to change. Following our blog "I don't have time! Now what do you do?", I thought a case exploring how SDT can offer solutions to resistance to change would be useful. As a reminder, here’s a visual summary of SDT:
A small, highly respected pharmaceutical contract research organisation was surviving on a small customer base who knew and respected their expertise. The talented team had produced some excellent advisory work for high profile clients. The challenge was their deep subject matter experts were so devoted to resolving scientific challenges that could save lives, that they didn't pay much attention to developing the next business opportunities.
The Executive Team decided it was time to shift the culture and make the Section Heads more accountable for the commercial development of the business. It stopped short of allocating full P&L responsibility, but it wasn't far off. One of the first moves was to ask each Section Head to produce a market development strategy for their specialist area, complete with revenue assumptions and costs for the following year. With the best of intentions founded in beliefs about self-responsibility and how we learn-by-doing, the Executive team provided only minimum guidance and suggested Section Heads ask questions if they weren't sure how to proceed. Results were mixed. Some Section Heads didn't meet the deadline, others produced plans that were either incomplete or internally inconsistent. The only coherent ones were by Section Heads with previous commercial experience. The Section Heads who had not submitted or had not completed their plans, argued they did not have time. They were too busy solving scientific problems for clients to prioritise paying attention to the future solvency of the business. The Executive might have benefitted from curiosity at this point, about why these highly accomplished professionals were resisting engagement? What gap was revealing itself and what might be done to bridge it? An explanation that SDT offers here, is that the Section Heads felt no motivation to engage because they had no experience or competence in business development and planning. Their lack of competence was like a missing part in an engine, without which the whole engine wouldn't go. The missing part was replaced with fear of failure and was enough to stall the engine. The fact that those with experience produced good plans apparently corroborates this view. A gap-bridging provision of learning resources, whether in the form of training, mentoring, reading or other guidance might have been all that was required - although read on to see why this wouldn't have been the only element that was missing.
The next move was to invite the Section Heads to a group meeting to explain and respond to questions from both Executives and other Section Heads about their plans. Again, with the best of intentions, the Executive Team was trying to encourage Section Heads to be curious about each others' plans, some of which depended on collaboration with each other. Unfortunately, because many of the plans were not well formulated, what transpired was something that might have looked to an outsider like ritual humiliation. Apart from compounding individual feelings of incompetence, it felt to the Section Heads like they were being patronised and in some ways set up to fail by the Executive. So instead of becoming more commercially focused, there were signs of "taking their ball home" with behaviours such as only responding very minimally, literally or combatively to further planning requests. SDT would argue that relatedness - a sense of belonging and shared purpose - is an essential condition for motivation. The Section Heads could easily feel motivated to save lives because it gave a shared and meaningful purpose to their actions; but there was very little sense of collective cause in the planning and even less motivation to engage given the sense of alienation created at the group meeting. Given the nature of the plans already submitted before the meeting, the Executive might have benefitted from taking a moment to pay attention to something not being right and asking themselves what was behind the lack of engagement? To their credit, they had tried to explain the need to sustain and grow the business, the purpose or WHY? But they had only done so in purely financial and logical terms - there was very little at the empathic and emotional level that would engage the Section Heads on the level of their values and beliefs which were firmly rooted in scientific expertise. A direct but compassionate discussion with each Section Head might have been appropriate; as well as a more facilitative style of group discussion to reveal these underlying issues and to support learning and a shared sense of purpose early in the process. These interventions would depend on the Executives' ability to build empathy and rapport, important foundations for relatedness and permission to influence change. Finally, when the Section plans were synthesised in to one final corporate plan, it was done behind closed doors, approved by the Executive and published. Some Section Heads were infuriated that there had been no further consultation - they claimed not to know what assumptions had been made, how targets had been set and felt little ownership for the plan. It is widely accepted that feeling controlled, or a lack of control, is demotivating and stressful. SDT underpins this belief and offers autonomy as the third condition for motivation. The leadership challenge here, is to design any change together with the people who have to embody the change. It takes more effort initially, but the payoff is that any resistance is laid out early and resolved with the help of those resisting the change. Those involved feel a sense of freedom of choice and ownership. The Executives in this case could have held a number of workshops to build ownership of the purpose - the need to sustain the business, the underlying beliefs and assumptions, the targets and the capability to deliver it. Motivation = f(PxE) Where P = Person; and E= Environment
If any one of the conditions for motivation - CAR - is not satisfied then motivation for the change cause is depleted at the individual level. The leader's role through change is to constantly monitor how the environment is supporting or suppressing motivation and take action to prevent or repair gaps as they emerge. It requires continuous mindfulness, curiosity, engagement and creativity.
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