All our lives, we strive. We strive to speak, to walk, to run, to play. As kids, much of this happens organically and without too much conscious effort. We’re undaunted by new challenges, in fact, we thrive on them.
In our professional, adult lives, with a multitude of demands on our time, how can we take on new challenges and thrive on them, rather than see them as yet another demand from the boss, another onerous task? As leaders and managers, how can we ask our own teams to step up and do things differently when they too are already stretched?
The theory of Self Determination [i] suggests that human beings have three basic psychological needs and like all good theories, it’s helpful it there’s an acronym that comes with it, in this case, A.R.C.:
1. Autonomy – the sense that I have a choice in what’s to be done and I find it interesting
2. Relatedness – the need to feel close and connected to significant others
3. Competence – the ability to use one’s strengths & achieve valued outcomes
We’ve all been in workplace situations where a time-consuming task is handed down from above, with no background or context, nor scope for modifying or changing the approach to it. These classic “because the boss says so” directives typically offer little autonomy, minimal relatedness and may fail to leverage the inherit skills and competencies of people in the team. At best, this “just do it” edict is unlikely to fully engage people or encourage them to give their best. At worst, it’s deeply demotivating.
Acknowledging and utilising a person’s unique strengths and reinforcing what they are doing well helps strengthen both competence and confidence. Ask your team members one-on-one, what do you love to do, at home and at work? What do you see as your strengths? How do the answers to these questions differ from your own pre-conceptions? Are there people in your team you’ve been working with for years with hidden talents you didn’t know about, let alone put to good use at work? Sometimes people find it difficult to articulate their own strengths. There are some helpful online self-surveys to identify individual strengths. One of the best known of these is the VIA or “Values in Action” survey of character strengths from the University of Pennsylvania.
As a leader, using person-centred micro skills such as active listening, authenticity and empathy can help build a warm, trusting relationship that enhances relatedness. Actively observing the interpersonal dynamics within the team is also helpful. Do people tend to work independently or collaborate with peers? Consider asking individuals whether they would they enjoy working with a partner or smaller sub- team to tackle the challenge ahead, in order to bolster relatedness.
If you believe members of your team have the capacity to perform at a higher level, ask them which of the three needs – autonomy, relatedness and competence - are being met (or not met) by current or proposed projects? Can they help shape the nature of the task, rather than it being decreed from above? Do they believe their strengths are being acknowledged and deployed in a way that allows them to contribute to achieving valued outcomes?
Ultimately, any form of striving requires an investment of energy. Strong leaders generate energy within the team by transforming the perception of the task at hand from an imposed and often irrelevant chore to an involving, interesting opportunity to showcase individual strengths and abilities. An opportunity for people to strive and thrive.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182.
Robyn Stubbs is an executive coach with Executive Coaching International, a Non Executive Director in the public and private sector and has had a successful executive career in general management and senior marketing roles in the media, property and fast-moving consumer goods sector. Robyn works closely with senior executives across a wide array of industry sectors in Australia.