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Motivational Psychology and Leadership in Higher Education

05/01/2014 12:32 pm 12:32:21 | Updated Jul 01, 2014

Motivational psychology has been a popular topic recently as private-sector employers have been turning to social science for ideas on how to better motivate employees, improve performance, and increase their bottom lines. While most popular treatments of the topic have focused on the business world, as a college professor I'm interested in how this might be of use to leaders in higher education, especially in terms of the environments they create in which faculty members do their work.

One of the most famous recent books on motivational psychology is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. His basic thesis is that there are three "innate psychological needs" that motivate human performance: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

"Autonomy" is about choices. The more freedom and choices employees have, the more motivated they are to complete their responsibilities at a higher level of performance. Compared to many other professions, college faculty already enjoy a higher-than-average amount of autonomy. While we certainly have demanding jobs with lots to do between our three spheres of teaching, research and service, we also usually have a lot of flexibility about when and how we go about getting our work done.

Even so, there are many ways that higher education leaders can look for ways to increase faculty autonomy and thus improve their motivation and performance. For example, administrators can try to maximize freedom for faculty to teach courses that play to their strengths and specializations and to structure courses in a way that takes advantages of their particular skill sets and perspectives. Faculty can also be given a choice in what committees they serve on and which service assignments they are assigned. Sometimes committee work itself can be "demotivating" because a year's worth of effort on a report or initiative might end up sitting on a desk collecting dust. Are there ways to empower committees with even more ability to implement the recommendations of their reports? Institutions can also take a serious look at how faculty use their teaching time. Are there ways to offer faculty more flexibility to shift some of their classroom teaching time to focus instead on one-on-one, high-impact teaching experiences like collaborative student research projects?

"Mastery" is about gaining competence over a skill and successfully completing challenging projects. According to Pink, people are motivated to engage in activities when they can develop their skills and get better at doing something they find interesting. The goal for administrators is to provide environments where faculty can improve their skills and experience "flow" - concentrating intensely on a task that is enjoyable, interesting and challenging but not overwhelming.

How might this be accomplished? Administrators can encourage faculty to switch up their teaching assignments on occasion, to take on a new course on a topic that challenges the professor to learn a new subject or skill. Administrators can also switch up committee assignments every few years to provide opportunities to tackle different kinds of challenges learn different kinds of skills. In teaching-oriented institutions, administrators can look for ways to increase time available for faculty to engage in research activities. After all, this is often why faculty sought out this line of work in the first place: they are curious people who are intrinsically motivated to learn more about the world around them. As faculty tackle challenging research agendas it improves their mastery of their disciplines which, in turn, can lead to higher motivation and teaching performance.

The third area that Pink describes is "purpose." People are motivated to perform well when they know that they're doing something important that contributes to a higher goal or greater good. This implies, according to Pink, that leaders (including those in higher education) should shift the focus from "'how' to do the job to 'why' the job is important." This should appeal naturally to college faculty, many of whom sought out their professions because they view the scholarly pursuit of knowledge as an exciting endeavor and that sharing that knowledge with successive generations is a worthy endeavor.

For administrators, this suggests that faculty motivation can be bolstered by framing their work as part of the "bigger picture" of their institution's core mission. What is your institution's "story"? (This should be able to be summarized in a single statement: "My institution is... [fill in the blank].") How do each faculty's teaching, research and service efforts fit into that story? How does each committee fit into that broader narrative? Consider things like sharing stories of alumni who have gone on to do great things, or sharing stories of faculty members whose research has been recognized as being especially influential to their discipline or whose committee service efforts have made a profound impact on the institution's environment.

Finally, Dan Pink offers some thoughts on employee compensation that is relevant for higher education leaders. He argues that monetary compensation is an extrinsic motivator that, if used improperly, can actually serve to dampen motivation. His advice? "Get compensation right, then get out of sight." Administrators should first make sure that compensation is "fair" and then to bump it up a notch so that it's slightly above-average. That way, employees will shift their focus from the extrinsic motivator of "pay for performance" to the intrinsic motivators of autonomy, mastery and purpose. For higher education leaders, this means looking at questions like: "are the faculty being paid comparable salaries to those from comparable institutions who are expected to engage in a comparable amount of teaching, research and service?"

I'm fortunate to work for an institution that prioritizes on-going conversations on these priorities and initiatives that can provide faculty with even more opportunities for autonomy, mastery and purpose. In an environment that is becoming increasingly competitive for higher education where institutions are being forced to "justify their existence" to a greater extent than ever before, leaders in higher education can benefit from looking for ways to create even stronger environments that foster faculty motivation to provide outstanding educational opportunities for their students.