Why Motivation Matters: What we can learn about supervision from “Drive”


While reading Daniel H. Pink’s Drive this week for the #SAChat book club, I had a few moments of clarity about supervision and personal practice. Sometimes I feel that there is always a question of “How do we get student staff to do what we want them to do?”. We, as professionals, similarly ask ourselves “How do I get myself to this meeting/to finish this project/to get out of bed?” (admit it).

Now, some student staff, whether they are RAs, office work study students, orientation leaders, or others, consistently blow our minds with how freaking good they are at their jobs. I’ve had times during grad school when I’ve looked at students I supervise or work closely with and feel inspired by their rockstar-ness. And there are students that you know are not really engaged with the work, who don’t want to put in the work to get the benefits, who are just checking in and checking out as necessary. I do not file these students into “good student worker” and “bad student worker” piles, but try to realize that there are some pieces missing in the experience of the students who struggle. The rockstar students love what they are doing; they are personally connected and engaged to the work  in some way; they see that there are immense benefits to themselves or a community they care about from their work.

Extrinsic v Intrinsic

Pink’s framework on motivation is all about intrinsic v. extrinsic drives and rewards. The idea is that extrinsic rewards and systems, in which you work explicitly for the purpose of getting a tangible reward or avoiding punishment, ultimately act as a demotivator, reducing someone’s long-term potential to achieve creativity, productivity, and derive meaning from their work.  Systems that recognize intrinsic motivation, however, allow for individuals to engage actively with their environments, exercise their creativity, feel valued, and turn out better work, better ideas, and better lives.

Pink introduces the idea of “flow” to describe the optimum creative/productive/happy state that people achieve when they are doing something for intrinsic reasons. Here’s the Wiki on flow, which was discovered by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist Pink interviewed for this book. It’s about focus, rapture, intense commitment to a task; you gain enjoyment from doing what you are doing. Pink draws on the arts and athletics as some examples of flow; I’m sure many of us can relate to that analogy. Flow is a central part of what drives intrinsic motivation. The flow is the drive, in fact. It’s a performance high. It’s being in the zone. It’s feeling great about what you are doing.

Four T’s

Pink suggests that people exhibit intrinsic behavior when they have autonomy over the four T’s: task, time, technique, and team. As an artist or athlete, for example, you typically have a lot of control over these things. UNLESS someone starts messing all up in your flow, giving you lots of schedules, deadlines, specific compensation for your performance, and telling you who you have to collaborate with. Boom. Demotivated.

Now, we don’t do that in Student Affairs…right? Crap. Crappity crap crap. You bet we do. I think that these extrinsic factors (which pretty much all of management in the history of the U.S. has been based on) are the grounds upon which all of our pre-semester great ideas, brainstorms, and lofty, innovative, exciting plans go to die.

A Student Affairs Scenario

Here’s how it works (more like, doesn’t work): It’s the beginning of a new semester. Our students (in my case, RAs) are getting their flow on. They are all ready to meet new residents, build relationships, foster community, help people be more safe, secure, and smart. In addition to the room and board, that’s why most of them are here; they realize that this job has some pretty good intrinsic payoffs in terms of impacting the campus and others’ lives. And the first thing we do with this intrinsic drive when they arrive is schedule the living crap out of them. Be here at 8am. Sit in different rooms all day. Go along with these blocks of time and presenters and then make sure you stay up late to complete this checklist that I have for you. I’ve seen it happen every year. It’s deflating. We do exercises like coming up with a community programming model, which is a creative, intrinsically-driven process, and then we make it into a checklist. Do this much of this every week/month/semester. Bring in this many people. Check off all of these boxes. While we are at it, I’m also going to assign you to play nicely with others on a forced team. And most of the time, when we do this, we aren’t even extrinsically motivating them with a reward, but with a punishment. If you complete the programming requirements, keep your hall decorated, collaborate with X number of resources, report on conversations with this many residents, etc, then you won’t get put on probation or an action plan.

Ugh. I love my previous department. I worked there for 5 years and it changed my life. I love the RAs I worked with and my coworkers. But I think that they would all agree with me that these guidelines, timetables, checklists, spreadsheets, threats for underperformance, and so forth are exhausting, energy-killing, and creativity-quashing. But this is how I’ve always worked. I had the best damn program tracking spreadsheet you’ve ever seen and a rubric, checklist, or guide for pretty much everything. My RAs would gasp when they saw my Google calendar because it looked like a colorful game of Jenga, scheduled discretely for every single hour of my week.

How Can we Harness Intrinsic Motivation?

What Pink is saying though, is not only that this isn’t how it has to be, but not how it should be. In fact, working this way is completely against our natural human tendencies and behaviors. I’ve had many moments of “flow” in my ResLife work. Leaving a program to counsel a student about homesickness and having an amazing conversation. Brainstorming something exciting and innovative with my team. Talking with people over lunch or coffee about important issues in higher education. Seeing my student org members work together seamlessly to pull off an event despite challenges. There are so many more that I can think of. Drive has inspired me to think more about what makes those kinds of moments so meaningful, productive, and intense (in a good way) and how I can rethink the way I structure the every day to optimize my own and my supervisees’ intrinsic motivation and rewards. Students need to have a sense of autonomy over the four Ts (task, time, technique, team) to be their best, most driven selves. We need the same thing as professional staff. And we need to rethink how systems of accountability work (or they don’t work) to allow for that intrinsic motivation to flourish.

Food for thought: How can you maximize the intrinsic potential of your staff members?


A Question of Faith

Religion and higher education. We have a weird, frightened, tenuous relationship with religion at secular institutions of higher education.

This topic has been floating around in my head for a while but has most recently been brought to the fore by this week’s book club co-sponsored by @The_SA_Blog and @CronkNews. For the summer #SAChat book club, I read The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose. Roose transferred to Liberty University for a semester while an undergrad at Brown and, after maintaining an “undercover” persona while there, wrote a book about it. It’s a pretty interesting tale of student development, cultural understanding, and growth. It’s also a fascinating read if you don’t know much about Evangelical Christianity, which at present, is the most popular form of organized religion in the U.S. (in a recent Pew Survey, it ekes out Catholicism by a little over 2%, accounting for 26.3% of adults.

There has been a renewed discussion within Student Affairs on examining spirituality and religion in the context of our work, even at secular institutions, as faith and spirituality are rather important for many students. However, I don’t think I am alone in saying that at secular institutions, we are still a little afraid of religion. Now, I am not the most spiritual of folks out there. However, raised in the Episcopal tradition and a professed atheist since my teen years, I have a pretty keen understanding of faith, community, spirituality, and identity pertaining to those issues. I’m rather wary of the spiritual development models that I learned about in grad school (Fowler, I’m looking at you), mostly because they were Christian-centric and did not allow for conversion or non-affiliation with faith.

But I feel strongly that spiritual development is very important in that it encompasses a variety of moral, cognitive, interpersonal, and personal elements that challenge many students. As an individual, I have a set of beliefs that are obviously at odds with just about every organized religion out there; in fact, I’m part of 1.6% of American adults who identify as atheists (and I would wager that there is some serious variety of thinking within that group). So I know that when I am working with a student, I am almost guaranteed to have a different belief system (in terms of faith and religion) than they do. This thought rang clear for me while reading The Unlikely Disciple because one of the central tenets of Liberty University is that everyone has approximately the same religious belief system.

My main concern in thinking about spirituality and Student Affairs is to what extent are we marginalizing students based on their beliefs through an apprehension to engage in matters of faith?

I haven’t done any  first-hand research on this topic,  so I can’t authoritatively speak to the attitudes of SA professionals at secular and public institutions regarding conversations and experiences about faith, but I think this is an important area to think about. There are many questions that I think we should consider with regard to this topic:

  • Are we comfortable engaging with students about their faith?
  • Are we comfortable talking about what they believe, why they believe it, and what that means in their lives?
  • Are we comfortable having these conversations with our colleagues and peers?
  • Do we understand the legal role of religion in public higher education and are we able to apply the concepts of freedom of religion holistically without creating an environment of fear of religion?
  • Are we stewards of our own faith and spirituality in such a way that allows for open dialogue, sharing, and interfaith collaboration?

Throughout the course of human history, innumerable wars have been waged over religious beliefs (mostly associated with money, power, greed, and land, but religion was involved). But public opinion shows that most Americans today don’t believe that it’s “my way or the highway (to hell)” concerning their religious beliefs. 70% of affiliated Americans believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life” and 68% believe that there are multiple ways to interpret the teachings of their religion (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life). This means that most people are probably fairly open to having collaborative, constructive conversations about faith without writing off everyone else in the room. And we should have these conversations, because religious activity can have very close ties to community service, social justice, community, identity,  a sense of belonging and other positive outcomes that are central to the the goals of our work in Student Affairs.

Weigh in on the conversation here:

Book Review: Not Quite Adults

I’m 23 (going on 24), which means that Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone (Settersten and Ray, 2010), is not just a little pro-devo for someone who works with an 18-24 population. This book pretty much describes my life. 

As I write this, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. My relying on my parents to help cover the gap between my two jobs is pretty emblematic of the new transition to adulthood described in Settersten and Ray’s book, which is based on eight years of research by the MacArthur Research Network on Transitions to Adulthood, a research network that includes twelve researchers in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, economics, sociology, criminology, and public policy. Because of the relevance to both my personal and professional lives, I thought that this book was an excellent choice to provide perspective and provoke thought about the experience of “growing up”. I would certainly recommend this (especially to other young professionals like myself!)

It’s Pretty Legit

The research cited in the book covers a variety of quantitative and qualitative studies conducted across the U.S. and takes an interdisciplinary approach to painting a picture of the experiences of the current 20-something crowd as they come of age in a drastically changed society. The book uses excerpts from interviews throughout, weaving the stories of young people into statistics and observations. As a result, the book is an interesting read that is completely salient to those working in higher education, to students themselves, for parents, and for recent graduates. Although one must keep in mind significant current events that have occurred since the book’s print date of 2010 (especially Occupy Wall Street), this manageable read offers excellent insights into understanding the path that young people in the U.S. are taking to reach adulthood today.

Sink or Swim

One of the central themes in the book is the idea of “swimmers and treaders”, working off of the “sink or swim” metaphor. Clear in the designation between young people who are swimmers (mostly those who successfully attain higher education and who have strong family support) and treaders (those who may lack the credentials and support necessary for long-term economic and personal success) is that the socio-economic and racial divide in this country is alive and well in determining the opportunities of young people. Also clear in exploring this theme is that the “American Dream” in the way it was interpreted by older generations is long gone. In addition to emphasizing education, the authors strongly examine the important role that family and parental support plays in the potential success of young people. It’s not about hard work; it’s about social capital, privilege, and having the ability to take advantage of social, economic, and educational opportunities to leverage success (not quite the American Dream, right?)

Speaking of the American Dream…

If it wasn’t obvious already, the old adage of success through hard work is not really flying anymore these days. Call me a cynic, if you will, but this isn’t your mama’s America anymore. Literally, it’s not. This is one of the points that Not Quite Adults drives home strong and clear: this country has changed. The rules are totally different than they were a couple of generations ago, and as a result, parents may encourage their children to follow the same path they did, with completely different outcomes. Financial success and security is almost inextricably tied to higher education, and the path to higher education includes debt. The authors make a great argument for taking on smart debt (like investing in an education that you can afford long-term, buying a house, etc). Perhaps most important to this book (and to the new experience of young people), is that the path to adulthood has become elongated, and that where families and society can support young people (by letting us live at home, for example) to help us get on our feet, it benefits society at large.

Higher Ed Relevance

I felt that this book fit seamlessly into my inquiry about the experiences and development of college students, especially considering the broad viewpoint that it provides on the benefits of education, the role of higher education in society, and practical, real topics like taking on student debt, moving back in with your parents, and negotiating romantic relationships and marriage. This is a book that has helped me to gain increased perspective on the world around me and society’s attitudes toward my generation and has provided me with worthwhile insights to apply to my work with students.