The Making of Motivation

My pastor sent a short note to the elders: “What can we as the spiritual leaders in this church do to spark a fire in our members?”

My thoughts went to my Sabbath School class: How does motivation occur? I thought about the complaint that some Sabbath School facilitators keep too tight a rein on the class.

Authenticity and Responsibility

Edward Deci, a psychologist at the University of Rochester in New York, asks an even better question: “How can [leaders] create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?” (Why We Do What We Do, p. 10, emphasis supplied).

This question shifts the focus away from extrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation based on external rewards and punishments and the possibility of feeling controlled) to intrinsic motivation (i.e., motivation based on what Deci labels “authenticity and responsibility”—the feeling of having choices).

Carrots and Sticks

In Education Psychology class, I learned that behaviors are increased or decreased by the use of rewards and punishment. Daniel Pink and others refer to this as the “carrots-and-sticks” approach, a paradigm that continues to dominate schools and businesses in many settings.

In his new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink reports on an interesting study that brings the “carrots-and-sticks” approach into question. Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School and a leading researcher in the area of creativity, tested the effects of offering rewards. She and two colleagues interviewed 23 professional artists. Each artist, unaware of the purpose of the study, selected 10 commissioned and 10 noncommissioned examples of their work to show to a panel of accomplished artists and curators who rated the work on creativity and technical skills.

The results. The commissioned works were rated significantly less creative than the noncommissioned works; however, technical qualities were rated the same. The artists reported feeling considerably more constrained when doing commissioned work than when doing noncommissioned works.

Alluring prizes, so common in the classroom and workplace, turn play into work. When expecting a reward, receiving one has little impact on intrinsic motivation. Contingent rewards (“If you do this, then you’ll get this”) have a negative effect. Pink cites many other examples of the negative impact of rewarding particular behaviors.

No More Rewards?

Pink and others point out that certainly not all use of rewards is inappropriate. Pink quotes Deci: “Of course, they’re necessary in workplaces and other settings, but the less salient they are made, the better. When people use rewards to motivate, that’s when they’re most demotivating” (ibid., p. 72).

Any extrinsic reward should be unexpected and offered only after the task is complete. Pink suggests that where “if-then” rewards are a mistake, shift to “now-that” rewards: “Now that you’ve finished the poster for the Thirteenth Sabbath program and it turned out so well, I’d like to celebrate by taking you out to lunch.” The best use of “now-that” rewards is to give praise, feedback, and useful information. From these studies, we clearly see that by focusing on the short-term goals and opting for controlling people’s behavior, leaders could do considerable long-term damage.

Check it out! In hundreds of research papers, we find this repeated conclusion: Human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives (ibid., p. 73).

Consider This Strategy

Pink proposes three elements of intrinsic motivation. As you reflect upon them, ask yourself whether your Sabbath School class subscribes to meeting the needs for (1) autonomy, (2) mastery, and (3) purpose. And, if not, what changes should be implemented so that these needs gain greater prominence?

Check it out! Always keep in mind that intrinsic motivation thrives in the context of a satisfying relationship.

Autonomy. Robert Brooks, a faculty member of Harvard Medical School, has written extensively about the importance of people feeling a sense of ownership and personal control. He found that in the business world and in schools, autonomy helps create environments that motivate. He believes that autonomy enhances a sense of mutual ownership, responsibility, and accountability.

Check it out! Can you say the same for your Sabbath School class? Do you enrich members’ intrinsic motivation by both eliciting and honoring their opinions?

Mastery. Members will be more motivated to engage in tasks that apply their strengths and competencies. A friend from many years ago used to say, “Nothing succeeds like success!” I hope that we have all had the experience of feeling a wonderful sense of accomplishment: “This wasn’t previous abilities.”

Check it out! While not every lesson can be of high interest to a member, there are factors that play an important role in determining the presence or absence of intrinsic motivation. They include:

  • The way in which material is presented.
  • The kinds of questions that are posed.
  • The learning activities that are introduced.

Purpose. Pink says, “Autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do so in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more” (ibid., p. 133).

Brooks and Goldstein contend in their books that there is an inborn need to help and that when the elderly are involved in “contributory activities” they enjoy longer life spans and more meaningful lives ( Raising Resilient Children and The Power of Resilience).

Pink writes, “And we know that the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we are clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice—doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves” ( ibid., p. 146).

The Highest Model. Wait a minute! That’s the way Jesus lived His life. Does that not suggest a daily walk with God? So would engaging in community outreach and missions, or giving Bible studies, not give purpose that would spark a fire in our church members?

A familiar song illuminates the discussion with a recurring line flowing from lips to legs: “It Only Takes a Spark.”


W. Eugene Brewer, Ed.D.
© 2014 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists