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Workplace Wellness

Workplace Wellness

This is an extract from the book ‘Lead By Example’ by Mat Lock. This is from Chapter 2, The Power of People and helps the reader to understand how the pursuit of accelerating human potential is steeped in psychology. It’s a complex subject but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dig in… 

This is an extract We humans are complex creatures in many ways and without sounding like I’m inserting a caveat to the following section, human psychology is a really complex subject. 

That said, one interesting way of looking at things is using something called the Self-Determination Theory. 

What’s that? That’s what Mat asked Ross Hastings, a Melbourne based psychologist from Ne-Lo.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is a macro theory of human motivation and personality that concerns people’s fundamental growth bias and intrinsic psychological needs. It’s concerned with the motivation behind choices people make without external influence or interference. SDT focuses on the level to which an individual’s behaviour is self-motivated or self-determined. To an employer, this is the holy grail of “states” in which their employees operate as a means of maximising shareholder value. For a gym owner or PT, the psychological state of their members impacts their fitness results and the dynamics of the business in parallel.

This wasn’t a theory I’d heard of by name, but like many others, I’ve certainly experienced its output. When considering functional fitness training brands such as CrossFit and F45, SDT could help to explain their popularity. It may also help explain why more than a million people worldwide make a financial investment each week to attend these challenging and intense classes versus trotting off to their local globo-gym for a more leisurely experience, sometimes at less than half the cost. 

The reasons for this?

We need to understand what motivates each individual. It’s considered by experts and backed by scientific study that there are three psychological needs that motivate “the self” to initiate behavior. These are essential for the individual’s psychological health and well-being. These needs are said to be universal, innate, and psychological, and include the need for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. 

Let’s understand these better using a CrossFit or F45 training environment as an example: 

  • Competence – This is a key element of motivation. The Everyday Athletes regularly joining these classes are usually mastering something, i.e., improving their skills with a definitive means of measuring the improvement. The measurements can be the amount of weight lifted, a heart rate zone reached or maintained, or the time taken to complete a workout. Often, these are displayed on a leaderboard and captured as a personal future benchmark.
  • Autonomy – While the named brands are typically quite regimented with their class times and structures, participants still choose to be there, they choose that style of training, that facility, that time, and that day. These choices provide a sense of autonomy for the individual and, consciously or otherwise, provide a sense of empowerment.
  • Relatedness – These people are part of a community that has common interests and a common purpose (more so than a traditional globo-gym, where the business model relies on sheer volume of members to succeed). CrossFit in particular has done a fabulous job of building a truly global community through it’s Open competition, an online qualifying event for members. 

So, when we think back to the Olympics, the same needs are met. Generally speaking, I’m sure we can agree that by default, there’s a certain level of mastery or competence involved for Olympians. It’s fair to say that most athletes are not participating under duress and thereby the desire for autonomy is also achieved. And finally, in the sporting world, the Olympics represents the very pinnacle of sporting achievement, i.e., the participants are part of an elite community of athletes. 

The burning question is, of course, how to address these three needs in a business environment

Just imagine if your business or employer could pave the way for every single member of the team to perform like an Olympian. The results would be astounding and it would be the most awesome place to work on the planet. Top talent would be knocking on the door, begging to be a part of the business.

However, this is rarely the case.

Let’s think about the three psychological needs that motivate the self to initiate behaviour as per SDT in a business setting. 

  • Competence – While present at some level in an organisational setting, is its progress being tracked and measured in the right way? It’s commonly measured with earnings and job title, and in that way, some organisations do a better job than others. But is it truly motivating people at the most optimal level? 

Most employers struggle to offer the same opportunity for growth that a CrossFit gym member may experience.  In that setting, there is an almost infinite journey of learning available for the average Everyday Athlete. Yet many of these same people would cite feeling like they’ve plateaued or hit a glass ceiling in their work life. 

I know this to be true for me and became very much a driver for my stepping out of corporate life. My employer did not intend for me to leave, yet the reality of my glass ceiling meant my needs for continued learning and competence were not being met. Maybe you can relate in some way?

  • Autonomy – We all like to think we choose our career path or job. And while some of us may have done so, what subtle influences played a subconscious role in the story? 

Take a lawyer for example. For most folks in the profession, it’s a good job and pays well. While they made the “choice” to be a lawyer, was that because they really wanted to be a lawyer or was their choice influenced by a perceived societal expectation or a desire for the status that comes with the position? If that’s the case, the risk is that this psychological need of autonomy is not really being met and therefore, an underlying compromise to true motivation exists. 

Another potential compromise to this psychological need happens at an organisational level. Like most things in life, autonomy can be tarnished by money. In other words, there’s an underlying, ulterior motivation. Ask yourself this: “If money were no object, would I still continue in my job?” Would our hypothetical lawyer still get up and go to work each day? Maybe that person would decide to focus on another type of law, or find a new set of clients, or put that legal education to work in some other fashion.

In understanding this inherent compromise, just imagine the impact of putting further financially incentivised performance targets in place. It’s certainly the norm, but then again, so are unproductive, disenchanted workforces. Do you believe it’s just a matter of coincidence, or — and let’s be honest — is there a correlation? Think about this in relation to your business or place of employment.

  • Relatedness – This is where great organisations really stand out, as they have a clear and tangible purpose. Examples like Tesla, Apple, and Google (Alphabet, parent company) are examples of such organisations with a crystal clear vision. They also have a clear set of values that are both concrete and pragmatic. They live by them and are always working toward them, and progressive leaders do so by example. 

I once listened to what Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut and director of crew operations at SpaceX, had to say of Elon Musk:

“If you pose him (Musk) a serious question that requires a decision, he’ll focus all of his intellect on that question and consider his answer against their mission to drastically impact the way we all live our lives in humanity.”  

Who wouldn’t want to be a part of “Team Musk?” I accept that Elon Musk is an easy example found at the far right-hand side of the spectrum, but in the spirit of understanding the importance of this third motivational need, I make no apologies for using him as a poster child. If we want to play our part in developing happy, healthy, and productive ecosystems, we must each look in the mirror and hold ourselves accountable.

So our soft targets, Tesla, Apple, and Google have understood the importance of competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Like the functional training brands we discussed already, they have “cracked the code” in terms of having a really clear purpose that their employees can connect with.

As a result, they hire the right people. They have learning and development programmes that are designed to up-skill people and make them better at their job. They facilitate a higher level of competence in their job. They give people choice in the way that they do things. They have strong innovation pipelines. And all of this moves them collectively toward the common goal. It also serves to satisfy a sense of meaningfulness for the individual.

But this reality does not reflect where most businesses find themselves. You may be reading this thinking that I’ve just described an almost mythical operating environment that is the preserve of a select few Silicon Valley titans. That’s one way to read it, and the pessimist would certainly perceive it that way, whereas the optimist would instead understand what is possible by drawing on these examples.

This extract, and indeed Chapter 2 of ‘Lead By Example’ was supported by Ross Hastings, a Melbourne based psychologist from Ne-Lo. Ross is someone who keeps himself on the cutting edge of coaching psychology and positive psychology to pursue his passion for exploring human potential. Like the team at The Bay Games, Ross also believes that we should strive to be brave, have fun and lead by example.

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