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?

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