Written by Paul Berry, Performance Psychologist Consultant
A thriving field of academic research is concerned with understanding the factors that explain and underpin outstanding performance. Across a wide variety of performance domains, including elite sport, space exploration, the military and the performing arts, the ability to sustain high levels of motivation has consistently been found to be essential for high levels of performance.
Motivation is so essential because achieving high levels of performance is no easy task. Irrespective of your area of endeavour, excelling at what you do must be grounded upon a relentless desire to improve, a self-critical mindset, and the ability to accept critique from others. Sustaining this approach to life is tough. It’s emotionally draining and can be boring, whilst constantly receiving critique from others can erode your self-confidence and increase your stress levels. Neither of which are conducive to high motivation.
This is why it is vital that if you value performance, you proactively manage your motivation. In my own work with British military fighter-pilots, much of their time is spent in de-briefing rooms where for hours on end they would be told what they had done wrong, despite them being the top guns of their profession. They would rarely be told how well they had done, and so it would be their responsibility to manage their own motivation.
The reality of motivation is that it is complex. So much of what moves us to do anything is outside of our conscious awareness. At the same time, there are also some factors that clearly affect our motivation and can serve as a useful guide in our management of it:
Amongst the fighter-pilots I worked with, common experiences as a young child were attending air shows with their parents and watching the film Top-Gun. This sowed the seeds of a deep-seated purpose in their lives: to be a fighter-pilot. Having a compelling purpose supports motivation when times are tough, or when you are receiving critique from others. One of the reasons purpose helps motivation is that it is connected to your identity. Fighter-pilots can’t really distinguish who they are from what they do. So having clarity on why you are doing your job, the higher purpose it serves and how this connects with who you are, will help your motivation.
Self-confidence is arguably the single most valuable psychological capability, and will hugely influence the direction of your life. We all know that the more confident we feel in a certain task, the more motivated we are to perform it. Confidence comes from multiple sources; our accomplishments; what other people say to us; what we say to ourselves; other people modelling certain behaviors. Be aware of your self-narrative – be clear on your strengths, and where you have overcome obstacles in your life. Spend time with people who support your confidence rather than those who bring you down. Seek out challenges that appear a little out of your comfort zone. Always pushing yourself will help with your confidence.
Humans are social creatures. I’m an introvert and have enjoyed the solitude of lockdown. But even I need the company of others and to feel part of ‘something’. Feeling supported by others not only creates a sense of belonging, but it also boosts our self-confidence. Feeling cared for, heard, and valued by others keeps us motivated when times are tough. All case studies of elite performers highlight the role of a performer’s close support network.
If you’re reading this article inside, imagine you’ve never heard of a door and try exiting the room by walking through a wall. If you genuinely had never come across a door, pretty quickly you will give up as you learn that you have no control over how to exit the room. This is known as learned helplessness. The broader point is that by focusing on factors that are within your control, you will sustain your motivation. Trying to control the uncontrollable is not only going to de-motivate you, but it’s a quick route to lots of stress.
A key point about performance and motivation is that you own them both. You are responsible for your own motivation, it isn’t for your boss or friends or peers to ‘motivate’ you. Which means continually focusing on how you can generate a sense of purpose, manage your confidence, connect with others and being aware of what’s within your control. And then taking complete responsibility for each.
At the same time, it would be naïve to believe that our environment does not influence our motivation. With that in mind, within a working environment, everyone has responsibility for creating the conditions that help others manage their motivation. It’s not ok to justify constant belittling or gratuitous criticism of others by arguing they are responsible for their motivation. So ask yourself; how am I supporting my colleagues’ confidence? What must I do so they feel valued and cared for? How can I help generate a sense of belonging and group identity?