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April 2021

Can how we see ourselves have an influence on what motivates us?

Frog reflection

We’ve been looking at what the three elements of motivation are. In Part 2 of this series, we considered the element of personality. We established that it was relatively fixed, but since it only contributed somewhere between 20-30% of the motivational mix, then motivation itself was more fluid, more changeable than personality alone could account for. Also, we said that because personality was more or less innate, it had a ‘past’ perspective: it was a component of our motivation which came from our origins as a person as it were.

Now we need to go forward to the present time, and here we find the element of the self-concept. Essentially, how we see ourselves has an inordinate influence on what motivates us. The self-concept is how we see and feel about ourselves; ultimately, what we believe about ourselves and who we are. The importance of beliefs cannot be overstated, for in its watered down version, as Henry Ford commented: ‘if you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right’! In other words, thoughts and beliefs are often self-fulfilling prophecies: our own beliefs determine what will happen to us. Furthermore, they profoundly affect our motivations. The mere fact of believing one is an effective and efficacious human being means that one is far more likely to be energised at waking – that is, motivated – than if one thinks, ‘What’s the point? I never succeed’.

The famous psychologist Carl Rogers suggested that the self-concept had itself three distinct and distinctive components. They are the self-image, the self-esteem and the ideal self. You will notice that the three components also tend to have a primary tense within which they operate: the ideal self (who we want to be) is future orientated, the self-image (how we see our self now) is present tense, and the self-esteem (how much you like yourself) is past because it builds on all the feelings we have about our self. This does not detract from the central point I am making, for as I said about all three elements, they interact; and so within the self-concept there is a constant intermingling of the three components, and so change is possible. But what is critical here is understanding our self-image, or our view of ourselves at the critical moment we call ‘now’!

In my book, Mapping Motivation, chapter 2 (Mapping Motivation: Routledge 2016) I provide a number of examples of poor self-images which demotivate and drain us.

Figure 1: Poor Self-Images

Poor Self-Image

If we look at this cross-section of poor self-images we may notice two things. The first is that we probably know somebody, or knew somebody in the past, for whom the descriptor is particularly apt. Second, that when we think about it, such self-images must be de-motivating, not only on others, but on ourselves, because they require so much energy to maintain. Putting on a mask, albeit one we desire, necessitates we hold it up and wear it at all times; we are no longer operating from our natural or true self and this depletes us. Indeed, it hardens us – we ossify in some curious way that ultimately blocks our vital impulses, and these of course are responsible for our joie de vivre; for the satisfaction of deep motivators leads to joy, but if we have a false self-image we must, by definition, be attempting to satisfy motivators we don’t actually have! What could be more pointless? And yet, sadly, which is common practice.

Perhaps, looking at the list, we see some of the traits are more social – for example, ‘first to the bar’ – and others are highly prevalent in organisational contexts – for example, perfectionism. Keep in mind that every false self-image has a ‘pay-off’, that is, a purpose or gratification that the individual seeks to obtain. Perfectionism may have several: the false self-image that ‘I don’t or mustn’t make mistakes’, or ‘I have absolute standards’, or even ‘I work harder than anybody else’. These clearly are beliefs which are forming – or skewing - part of the core self-image and so affecting their motivational profile.

If we think about it, ‘dilute’ would perhaps be the best word for the effect of these false beliefs: for what is the motivator for desiring not to make a mistake? Expert – knowledge? Searcher – making a difference through unremitting accuracy? It certainly cannot be Creator, for all creativity involves mistakes along the way. Defender, then – double-checking that everything is ‘right’? Clearly, the belief in the false self-image isn’t a real motivator at all, and neither does it feed a motivator. It is like a parasite feeding off the central nervous system; and will certainly lead the perfectionist to burn-out, exhaustion, and possible collapse as the weight of the impossible gradually increases to breaking point.

For more on success with teams, also see my book, Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams (Routledge).

Becoming a Deep Expert

Jetty perspective out to sea

You may remember in the previous article we established that three elements contribute to that force or energy which we call motivation. The three primary sources of motivation are our:




Together they are like rivers which flow within us, and they stream into the turbulent sea or ocean of our fluctuating motivations. But unlike rivers, which are separate, they all interact with each other, and with the final outcome - our specific motivations in a given moment or period of time - continuously and continually.

We realise as we consider each one of these elements of motivation that as coaches we can zone in on any one or all of them in dealing with a client. Take 'personality'. We are all familiar with the concept of our Personality. In some ways it appears to be us; after all, it is our PERSON-ality? There are various instruments – personality and psychometric tests – that measure ‘personality’, either our traits or types, or specifically the predictive behaviours which emerge from these traits or types. ‘It’ – the personality - appears to be relatively stable; personality can shift under pressure, but there seems to be a norm to which it reverts and wants to revert. In that sense, then, it appears to be a ‘given’; our personality seems to be largely fixed and ordered at birth.

I refer to this (in my book, Mapping Motivation (Routledge 2016) as ‘past’ tense: it goes back to our origin. That said, the fact the personality experts themselves consider increasingly that personality is malleable (that, indeed, that a person may appear to be very different at one some future point in their life from what they were as, say, a younger person or as a pre-the-trauma person) only demonstrates the complexity of the human psyche and the fact that the self-concept and the expectations of an individual can, if prolonged or intense enough, have a profound effect on the personality.

Picture 1Figure 1

For more information on the various models of personality, read my book Mapping Motivation; but for now I’d like to make a personal observation about personality. Most basic models seem to predicate 4 types of personality. See figure 1. Sometimes these are colour coded: Leader -Red, Influencer – Yellow, Connector – Green, and  Planner -Blue. Indeed, looking at this you might ask yourself, what type/colour most seems like me?

The point is that I am certainly a Yellow or Influencer type – by nature, or by my natural inclination, or as I was growing up as a kid. But doing a Motivational Map today, the motivator ‘recognition’, or what we call The Star, is not even in my top 6. Something has changed or overlaid my primary drive or hunger. It may be that under severe stress or circumstances I might revert to recognition as a driver – motivator – but that would be an exceptional circumstance.

So I think two points interesting issues arise from this. One, people selling personality and psychometric tools on the basis that they reveal your motivators are selling really a pig in a poke! It is true that if someone had no learning and no experiences in life, or conversely had an early age been deeply traumatised, then their personality profile might not shift; and so the consequence would be that their personality motivator would align with their personality: so, for example, all Red or Leader types would have Control (what we call The Director) as their dominant motivator. But this, of course, is highly unlikely and obviously a rare phenomenon, if one could believe it happened at all!

No: people learn, people have trivial and profound experiences, and as they do so they try to make sense of the world. Eventually, in making sense every individual comes to believe certain things in two key domains that affect everything: they develop beliefs about themselves (which we short-hand as their Self-Concept) and they develop beliefs about outcomes in their environment (which we short-hand as their Expectations). As these beliefs intensify they provide either an enabling and dynamic energy that we call motivation; or they do the reverse and shut us down, and drain our energy. We need to remember that whatever we focus on as individuals grows in our experience and in our reality. Beliefs will always manifest themselves in the material world, for good and for ill.

In the third Part of this series we’ll take a more in-depth look at the Self-Concept and what this means for our motivators, and how we need to take more conscious control of it if we are to stay highly motivated – and one might add, stay or achieve greater success.

For more on success with teams, also see my book, Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams (Routledge).