Blog & Insight

Finding motivation in unprecedented times

A post from the archives written in April 2020, only a few weeks into the first lockdown, and ahead of a virtual webinar for Future Purchasing, a procurement consultancy I'm an associate for, that was recorded.

As I launch my new website I realise it's as relevant today as it was then and so decided to bring it across from my old blog.

Image above is used because my love of nature and beautiful sunrises is what provides the motivation for me to get out of a warm bed when there's frost on the ground and to go open water swimming in water that will be 10°C (50°F).


You may have noticed a change in your level of motivation at the moment – up or down.

You may also have noticed a change in motivation of your family, friends, colleagues and stakeholders.

What worked only a few weeks ago is no longer working – and that’s not just about what motivates us. (see my What is normal? poem for more on this).

The world has radically changed and every aspect of our personal and working lives continues to change daily.

As much as we’d like we can’t go back to how things were, and instead we need to have awareness of where things are now and where they are headed.  

I think there’s a few things going on that will help explain our reactions, and those of our stakeholders.

The two models I’d like to focus on here are attributed to Broadwell, and McClelland.

Broadwell suggested that all tasks are either being untaken unconsciously or consciously, and we’re either competently or incompetently undertaking them.

For example, if you think about the process you went through to learn to drive a car

  1. We didn’t know what we didn’t know and were unconsciously incompetent
  2. Then we got in the driving seat and discovered how much there was to learn and moved into conscious incompetence
  3. As we learnt to drive and increased our ability we still needed to pay attention but had moved to conscious competence
  4. And now we’re in unconscious competence we can drive for a few hours and not even know how we’ve got here

Over time of course we can move back down the levels for example

  • When teaching someone we have to move back into conscious competence to share how to do what we do
  • Although over time we can start to cut corners and be operating in unconscious incompetence about some of our driving – only to move into conscious incompetence when attending advanced driving lessons, or the speed awareness course! 

The truth of the matter is what took up a lot of conscious awareness when we were learning isn’t even registered now as it’s accomplished competently in the background as an unconscious habit. 

And therein lies the challenge at the moment - unconscious habits that we've developed our competence in over years have been thrown up in the air.

All the daily habits such as how we live as a family, how we shop, how we go for a walk, interact with others, measure two meters, and even wash our hands have been pushed out of our unconscious and into our conscious awareness.

For example, a colleague who had previously managed to do a shop and speak with a team member on their phone needed every ounce of their attention to do the supermarket shopping at the weekend.

They were having to learn to do it all over again but with new skills of social distancing, hand washing, not touching their face and worrying about who had touched the tins earlier all taking up a lot of their bandwidth of their limited conscious mind.

This bandwidth is related to cognitive psychologist George Miller’s magic number of 7 +/-2 stimulus that we can manage at any moment in time.

Is it any wonder then that we’re struggling to be motivated about additional work. What was background noise is now jamming the signal and using up all available headspace, energy and every last ounce of motivation.

Which suggests one strategy is not to add so many things to the to-do list.

Pair your to-do list back to the key things to do – the essentials if you will.

The niceties can wait – whether they’re in your objectives or not.  

McClelland’s model comes into its own when we look at the language of motivation.

McClelland model suggests that what we are each motivated by will fall into one of three areas:

  • Achievement
  • Affiliation
  • Influence

Which means for example category management (a procurement activity) might be sold differently dependent on which of these is of most importance to someone ie:

  • Achievement – category management ensures you achieve your objectives and get results
  • Affiliation – category management helps you to work together with the business
  • Influence – category management provides you with control over your spend 

There is, however, an additional aspect to the McClelland model that I think is key at the moment.

McClelland suggests people are either motivated ‘towards’ what they want, or ‘away from’ what they don’t want. With the above statements very much focusing towards what they will get as a result of undertaking category management.

Which means the sales pitches we use would sound very different if we’re telling people what they will be moving away from rather than towards. For example:

  • Achievement – category management ensures you avoid missing contract deadlines and failing to meet your objectives
  • Affiliation – category management ensures we don’t work alone or in silos and therefore reduces conflict.
  • Influence – category management avoids you being told what to do by others and having no control over your spend.

In workshops it’s this away from language that many procurement professionals find difficult to use preferring, because of their own preferences, to use the towards list of benefits of what category management will give their stakeholders.

It is, however, these away from motivations that I think are driving mindsets and behaviours at this unprecedented time.

It’s perhaps linked to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Kubler-Ross’s change curve that means we, our teams and many of our stakeholders are more interested in what is going to be removed, taken away, or stopped NOW rather than hearing about the long term vision of some unknown future.

Which means many of us, our stakeholders included, are wanting to avoid unnecessary, non-essential or complex discussions or decisions. We want to be helped to avoid supply disruption, non-compliance, helped to avoid and mitigate risks, and have conflict minimised. In other words, all things that will make life feel safer and grounded NOW.

Just at the moment, whilst much of their lives are in lock-down what many people don’t want to hear about is long-term savings targets, future projects or discussions about 2021.  

In summary if you, your team or your stakeholders are lacking motivation my recommendations are:

  1. Review and reprioritise to-do lists taking out any niceties – ie release some bandwidth
  2. Ditch talking about the long-term goals – they can’t understand how they’re relevant
  3. Focus on how to make their life better for today, this week or next week (actually, walking the talk, I really mean focus on how to make their life less stressful today) because that’s what will enable them to do the job you want/need them to do

Once life has settled down and we’ve all got a little more headspace and clarity about our personal and organisational medium-term position then we can get back to stretching goals and adding loads more value to organisations. After all, they’re going to need even more of what we have to offer than they ever have.


Do get in touch if you're interested in finding out more about the coaching and training available to help develop many aspects of your team's self awareness, confidence, resilience and other soft skills.


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