The Anti-Motivation Strategy

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“I need to get motivated.”

You might want to rethink that.

Search “motivation at work” and you get the usual ManagementSpeak telling managers how to motivate workers — lots about engagement (again!) and carrots and sticks. Google “how to motivate yourself” and you get inspirational quotes and helpful lists. Okay as far as it goes, but it’s not the whole story.

We saw last time that we need inspiration to get going, and that our brains provide it with a shot of the hormone dopamine. But what the motivators don’t tell you is that dopamine can be too much of a good thing. The following is from Larry Howes — “lifestyle entrepreneur” and former arena football player and member of the USA men’s national handball team.[1]

“One of the most dangerous drugs an entrepreneur can become addicted to is motivation.

“I’ve heard far too many entrepreneurs say,  “I just need to get more motivated” in order to start a project or achieve a goal.  This usually means they’ll spend a few hours reading or listening to other people’s success instead of creating their own.

“This is how the motivation addiction begins.

“Don’t get me wrong – motivation is great.  It’s nature’s reward for achievement, but it can easily become your “drug” of choice if it’s misused.

“This may sound a little funny, but one of the best drug dealers in the world is your brain. Your brain is wired to release a shot of dopamine each time you … achieve goals, take risks, try something new. They’re all natural highs and designed to keep us coming back for more.

“It’s great to be goal driven and to have feelings of fulfillment following our achievements, but the moment we began wanting those feelings before doing the work we’re in HUGE trouble.”

The issue is dependence:  that motivated feeling isn’t easily summoned; reliance on it is dicey. Plus, dopamine acts like any addictive substance:  each successive time you reach for a shot, you need more than last time:

“Once again, there’s nothing wrong with motivation or learning from the success of others, but that moment we need the ‘reward feeling’ of motivation in order to get started, we’re in serious trouble.

“Not only does it take away from precious time you should spend working, it also means that you’ll need a higher dosage of motivation as time progresses.”

And don’t fall for the line that you can be anything you want, adds “journalist, author, and broadcaster” Leslie Garrett:  your brain will hurt you if you do, this time because of the “stress hormone” cortisol.[2]

“As long ago as the fourth century BCE, the Greek philosopher Aristotle celebrated the value of a meaningful goal when he coined the term eudaimonia (‘human flourishing’). The concept re‑emerged in the 16th-century Protestant concept of a ‘calling’. More recently, in the 1960s, a whole generation of young people brought up at the height of an economic boom began asking whether work could amount to more than just paying the bills. Couldn’t it have something to do with meaning and life, talents and passions?

“It was then that the episcopal clergyman Richard Bolles in California noticed people grappling with how to choose that special, meaningful career, and responded by publishing What Color is Your Parachute? (1970), which has sold more than 10 million copies, encouraging job‑hunters and career-changers to inventory their skills and talents. Bolles bristles at the suggestion that he’s telling people to be ‘anything’ they want to be. ‘I hate the phrase,’ he says. ‘We need to say to people: Go for your dreams. Figure out what it is you most like to do, and then let’s talk about how realistically you can find some of that, or most of that, but maybe not all of that.’

“The situation even endangers health. In 2007, psychologists from the US and Canada followed 81 university undergraduates for a semester and concluded that those persisting in unattainable goals had higher concentrations of cortisol, an inflammatory hormone associated with adverse medical outcomes….”

Ms. Garrett goes on to say that misguided career intentions throw you into the “ambition gap,” which is a nice segue into next week’s topic.

For more motivation bashing, you might enjoy a couple of my LinkedIn Pulse long posts:  The Anti-Motivation Strategy: Why All This Motivation Is Killing You and The Anti-Motivation Strategy: The One Thing You Need For High Performance (And It’s Not Motivation).

[1] “Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity (And How to Fix It)” Forbes (Aug. 20, 2012). I tried to provide a link, but it wouldn’t work. Google “Larry Howes Forbes Why Motivation is Hurting your Productivity,” and the article will come up.

[2]You Can Do It, Baby! Our Culture Is Rich With Esteem-Boosting Platitudes For Young Dreamers, But The Assurances Are Dishonest And Dangerous,” Aeon Magazine (July 17, 2015)

The Anti-Motivation Strategy (Part 3): The Dark Side of Motivation

All those motivational articles and advice want you to keep pouring on the motivation: more speeches, more posters, more rah-rah, more carrot and stick. And that means putting the human brain and body under chronic stress, pouring on the cortisol, keeping the fight or flight response on red alert.

Employee-Motivation resized

We’ve been trying to find a sustainable approach to getting motivated and staying motivated. No luck thus far. To go further in our search, it’s time to face…

The Dark Side Of Motivation

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Let’s sample some more scientific research:

Motivation, Stress, Anxiety, And Cortisol Responses In Elite Paragliders The title pretty much tells you what you need to know:  it uses motivation, stress, and anxiety together. Hold that thought.

Salivary Cortisol Changes In Humans After Winning Or Losing A Dominance Contest Depend On Implicit Power Motivation I think that means rah-rah works for some people, but shuts others down.

What do these articles have in common besides their long scholarly titles? They both talk about cortisol, known as “the stress hormone.” Back to WikiUniversity for a primer:

“Stress is a physiological and psychological stimulus and response that presents itself in many different ways throughout the body. Stress or a stressor can be thought of as any stimulus that upsets the bodies [sic] natural balance or hoemeostasis [sic].

“Stress is defined as any situation that upsets homeostasis within the body and threatens ones [sic] emotional or physical wellbeing.

“The dominant modern perspective is that emotions recruit biological and psychological supporters to enable adaptive behaviours i.e. fighting, running or empathetic situations. The two hormones of Adrenaline (Epinepherine) and cortisol support the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress reactive system.”

Obviously this Wiki contributor was having a bad spellcheck and grammar day, but we get the point:  stress knocks us out of whack, from the inside out. We’re not just skipping down the happy motivation road anymore, we’re on the way to….

Cortisol, adrenaline, hormones, anxiety, fight or flight… oh my!

Lions and tigers and bears

Here’s the problem:  you need motivation to stay motivated.

That’s the bottom line of the Feed The Beast motivation strategy we looked at last time. All those motivational articles and advice want you to keep pouring on the motivation:  more speeches, more posters, more rah-rah, more carrot and stick. And that means putting the human brain and body under chronic stress, pouring on the cortisol, keeping the fight or flight response on red alert.

Not only is that lousy leadership and management, it’s lousy self-care, too. We’re not meant to live that way, and it certainly won’t empower us to perform at our best. The fight or flight response is supposed to be a quick fix — over and out when the threat has past. Chronic stress keeps the threat ever-present, which messes with mind and body, puts health at risk. Which is why…

All This Motivation Is Killing You

We’ll let the Mayo Clinic weigh in on this issue:

“Your body is hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect you against threats from predators and other aggressors. Such threats are rare today, but that doesn’t mean that life is free of stress.

“On the contrary, you undoubtedly face multiple demands each day, such as shouldering a huge workload, making ends meet and taking care of your family. Your body treats these so-called minor hassles as threats. As a result you may feel as if you’re constantly under assault. But you can fight back. You don’t have to let stress control your life.

“When you encounter a perceived threat — a large dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

“Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

“Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.

“The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.

“But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.

“The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment.”

Comparable medical research abounds. If you want more, here’s a short article on how chronic stress hurts us. And here’s another.

More next time