Motivation and change

Motivation. I wrote about my own motivation to learn in this week’s discussion post, so here I would like to focus the motivation of participants in the various education and training programs I’ve worked in over the years. I found Ahl’s perspective fascinating. Merriam and Caffarella point out that “Ahl challenges the assumptions that motivation is a phenomenon existing only within the individual learner because it suggests a deficit… Ahl argues that we have created ‘the unwilling learners [who] are both the reasons for and the solutions to societal problems, while those who formulate the problems, and the basis for the formulation of the problem, remain invisible. They are made invisible because they represent normality, the ideology in power, and knowledge that is always taken for granted.'” Ahl feels that motivation is not just situated within the individual, but should be viewed within the context of power relations, and that research should focus on “…who states that this is a problem, and why, and the reasons for this conclusion (Merriam and Caffarella, 2014, 162).”

I appreciated Ahl’s zooming out to question the entire framework and premise of mainstream research on motivation. I agree with Ahl that there are factors and perspectives with are not adequately addressed by traditional theories of motivation, and that the majority of recommendations in the mainstream literature  to increase motivation are pedagogical and assume that teachers hold much of the power to increase adult learner’s motivations (Merriam and Caffarella, 2014, 162). Our field is steeped in this mainstream perspective.

While in general I found the learners in the training and education programs I have worked in to be quite motivated, both intrinsically and extrinsically, I have found intrinsic motivation to be higher than extrinsic. In the community and workplace English and literacy programs that I have worked with, students signed up voluntarily and often stayed in the programs for years, even though their participation in the programs did not lead to promotions or raises. In my most recent job, participants in the trainings I designed were required to attend, as the trainings were on new skills required for new job tasks and interventions. However, these participants were also quite intrinsically motivated. My experience was that all of these learners were driven by the desire to master new skills and ideas – the mastery that Pink names as a key internal motivator, the “…compulsion to progress and improve around things that matter (Merriam and Caffarella, 2014, 147).” I have not found a significant lack of motivation at all. In fact, motivation among learners in my most recent job often stayed high even when training quality was poor and some or all of Wlodkowski’s four “motivational conditions,” inclusion, attitude, meaning, and competence, were not present (Wlodkowski, 2008, 102).

Ahl’s ideas brought to mind one particular training at which motivation took a steep dive. I had designed a training on nutrition interventions for Haitian community health workers (CHWs, workers who live in rural villages and work with village households to improve health outcomes.) The nurses delivering the training were excellent trainers. They had worked to build, as Wlodkowski describes, an atmosphere of “harmony and community” in which learners felt “safe, capable and accepted (inclusion);” a positive attitude among learners towards the topic and learning (the topic was immediately relevant to CHWs’ jobs) (attitude); a “…challenging learning experience in an engaging format about a relevant topic” so that meaning was increased; and a chance for learners to increase and demonstrate competence (Wlodkowski, 2008, 102-110). However, after the first two days of training, the CHWs learned that they would not receive their monthly pay that month as funds were low. This was an ongoing problem, and it turned out that the CHWs had not been paid for three months straight. They went “on strike” and refused to participate in the rest of the training. The issue was resolved and the training finished, but this was a striking example to me of an issue beyond an educator’s control that had a huge impact on motivation.

Change. I found this week’s readings on change very interesting. I appreciated Kegan and Lahey’s description of mental complexity, the three “mind” types among adults, and the need for leaders and others to move from being “self-authoring” to “self-transforming (Keghan and Lahey, “Reconceiving the Challenge of Change,16).” I did wonder about their proposal that this need has become urgent in the workforce due to our transformed economy and workplace: “We have witnessed the transition from physical labor to mind work as the dominant employee activity. We now live in a global economy characterized by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs, and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These developments create demand for higher levels of education and training than were required of previous generations… These developments also create new demands on our psychological resources. Specifically, these developments ask for a greater capacity for innovation, self-management, personal responsibility, and self-direction (Kegan and Lahey, “Reconceiving the Challenge of Change,” 25). I believe that the need for more “self-transforming” minds has always been great. but sometimes not encouraged or even repressed by social and workplace constraints, especially among those in subordinate positions.

Of all of this week’s readings, I found Keghan and Lahey’s “The Real Reason People Won’t Change” to be the most immediately applicable to my work life. Their proposition that uncovering “competing commitments” and “big assumptions” will help people to change their behavior rings true for me. I have actually done some work like this with a therapist years ago. She did not call what we were discovering “competing commitments” or “big assumptions” but that is what they were. While that therapy work was about personal issues, I have learned to examine these things in my work life as well.  Digging down to uncover deep-rooted competing commitments and assumptions is hard work, as Kegan and Lahey point out: “This is a difficult process, and it doesn’t happen all at once, because admitting to big assumptions makes people uncomfortable. The process can put names to very personal feelings people are reluctant to disclose, such as deep-seated fears or insecurities, highly discouraging or simplistic views of human nature, or perceptions of their own superior abilities or intellect (Kegan and Lahey, 2001, 7). I admit that once I have done the digging I do not always choose to change, but I at least understand where my reluctance comes from.

Motivation and change

One thought on “Motivation and change

  1. Hi Jenny,
    The Real Reason People Won’t Change was a great article. Whether you see yourself in that position or a co-worker, or perhaps someone who was left behind, the lessons are certainly valid.

    In addition to recognizing that I’ve definitely had employees who shovel against the tide, it is of greater importance to realize what complex beings we are, and that a full understanding of what drives people in one direction or the other is worthwhile investment of time and resources.


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