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How Psychology Drives Behavior: Getting the Most Out of Your Team and Yourself by Understanding Internal Motivations

Graphic of a winding trail on a mountain with a flag at the topThis is a guest post by Sarah Nogala, CE Assistant Coordinator.

Have you or anyone you have known ever achieved something they never thought they could, like losing weight, running a marathon, or learning a skill?  What is one dream or goal you have always wanted to accomplish but haven’t yet?  What really motivates behavior?  Motivation is the factor that directs and energizes the behavior of humans and other organisms.  The three major components of motivation are activation, persistence, and intensity.



Activation is the starting line of desire.  This is where we make a conscious decision to initiate a behavior (pre-selecting desired outcome).  A clear, motivating outcome must be kept in mind; otherwise, we will not even register for a marathon or sign up for the class, for example.  Are milestones also necessary, or just the final outcome?  Yes! Milestones are absolutely necessary.


Persistence is the continued effort toward a goal even though obstacles exist.  Recall examples of persistent coworkers, teammates, or friends putting in the necessary efforts to prep for and graduate their training, school, or skill courses.  The refusal to give up on their goals exhibits the relentless pursuit of high performance that earns them the kind of reputation most of us want.  But if most of us want that, why do so few of us demonstrate that persistence?  What keeps us from investing the time, energy, and resources to make this happen?


Intensity is the concentration and discipline to pursue what we want.  Such is the difference between a team member who chooses to coast with little conscious effort versus those who take advantage of extra training and mentoring outside of the standard requirements.  Without activation, persistence, and intensity, you have a wish, not a goal.  Another way to think about it is, “a goal is a dream with a deadline (Napoleon Hill).”

Cognitive Approaches to Motivation

Women on a track in a ready position for a raceSo, what are the things that motivate us to act?  Psychologists have several theories to explain motivation.  Cognitive approaches to motivation are the theories suggesting that motivation is a product of people’s thoughts and expectations– their cognitions.  For example, a person’s motivation to study depends on their belief in the value of effort in producing a good grade.

Before we get deeper into cognition, we need to distinguish between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation.  Intrinsic motivation causes us to participate in an activity for our own enjoyment rather than for any concrete, tangible reward that it will bring us.  Such as when coaches say they love the game and giving back so much they would do it for free.  On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is when external value causes us to do something for money, a grade, or some other concrete, tangible reward (e.g., Work to get a paycheck).  Most people are driven more by intrinsic motivators, such as when we volunteer and help those who cannot help themselves.  Interestingly, we are more apt to persevere, work harder, and produce higher quality work when the motivation for a task is intrinsic versus extrinsic.

Intrinsic Motivation

How do we increase Intrinsic Motivation?  Through autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


Give Permission, Take Control!  We want to be in control of our actions.  People are more motivated when they feel trusted enough to control and provide input over tasks and outcomes.  For example, can you recall a time where you were part of a group assignment but had no personal control over the outcome?  Team members who feel no personal control over outcomes rarely feel motivated to contribute to the group at all.  Their participation is not only going to be limited, but they may also feel actively discouraged.  People tend to dislike “group work” because they lose the individual sense of control and contribution.  Motivation gets diluted, and participation suffers when too many team members feel their piece of the puzzle is not needed or valued.


Praise only that which can be improved.  Essentially, we want to be good at stuff!  Praising permanent characteristics like physical traits produces a fixed mindset, which is where people believe what they excel or fail at is the result of an inborn and unchanging condition (e.g., “I’m smart/dumb, pretty/ugly, athletic/clumsy”).  To avoid this trap, praise effort, not traits.  Allow, encourage, or even demand ongoing self-assessment and the adjustments that often follow them.


So how can you take back control in group situations?   We want to feel understood, that we belong, and what we are doing has meaning.  To make each person in the group feel empowered and influential, give them control over how their ideas are presented or used.  Let them decide on which goals to pursue while focusing on the journey more than the outcome.  Too much emphasis on the outcome (on success or failure) can seriously impair motivation.

Motivate Your Team

Silhouette of people helping each other climb a rocky hillHow can we use these tools to motivate your team? We first need to introduce challenges.  If we are not challenged, we are often not interested and quickly lose interest.  Most people prefer to take on something within the realm of possibilities that requires learning something new or stretching existing abilities.  Mastery is a great goal but can also bring boredom.  With that reality in mind, how do we motivate others to take up a challenge?  Many organizations typically try to motivate by using either the “carrot” (incentive) or “stick” (disincentive) approach.  These tend to be obsolete.

Secondly, do not visualize success!  Research suggests that visualization is counterproductive.  By “fast-forwarding” to the visualization of our goals, we limit the amount of energy we devote to accomplishing the task itself and set ourselves up for failure when our expectations fall short.  (i.e., visualization becomes de-motivating).  Research studies have shown that idealized fantasies about the future typically predict poor achievement, and too much available energy is sapped due to over-visualization.  Most visualize themselves achieving the final goals, but rarely do they visualize all the steps to get there.  One should refocus on daily effort and incremental milestones that go into making those goals a reality.  Recall the goal or dream you came up with at the beginning of this post, and start thinking of a plan on how you can make it possible!

In summary, change begins with a choice, and mapping and milestones are critical.  Make sure you do research and development, identify the specific tools and information you will need, plan your work, and work your plan.  You should expect resistance from yourself and others.  Recall and reflect on the “6 P’s: Proper Preparation and Planning Prevents Poor Performance.”  As a takeaway, what is one thing you have learned today that you can use to change the way you motivate yourself and your team?

Sarah is an Assistant Coordinator at Harper CE, a MSF RiderCoach Trainer in BRC and 3W, a psychology professor, and a long-distance runner.  Her education includes studying psychology and human rights for a term at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg South Africa, a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Randolph-Macon College, a master’s degree in forensic psychology from Argosy University, with supplemental graduate coursework in psychology at the U.S. Senate with the late Daniel K. Inouye (Hawaii).  Sarah has been a featured speaker at several motorcycle safety international, national, and state conferences, including the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s IRETS, SMSA’s (National Association of State Motorcycle Safety Administrators) Annual Summit, and IDOT’s Annual Winter Conference.

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