What Motivates You?

Motivation Highway SignYou’ve seen the familiar headlines. A professional athlete destroys his locker after a loss…or complains that he isn’t getting the ball enough…or gripes about other teammates to the press rather than behind closed doors.

The executive lavishly refurbishes his office with shareholder money, as if to create a personal shrine…or allows the company to lose track of basic accounting controls tracking client funds…or assumes much greater risk than necessary to achieve success and ultimately pays the price when the house of cards comes crashing down.


Motivated by Ego

Research has identified two types of motivation driving performers: mastery (also known as task) and ego. Individuals who are motivated to perform by ego have to win in order to feel good about themselves. If they lose, they are miserable. They are miserable because they cannot separate their self-worth from the outcome of a performance. They do not understand the axiom who you are is not what you do.

Individuals who are likely motivated by ego have run companies and organizations into prosecution, bankruptcy and in some cases personal criminal convictions.  The ironic (perhaps better stated as tragic) feature of these situations is the vast majority of these individuals were already extremely wealthy and successful when they committed the transgressions that crippled them, their families and their companies.

This same dynamic occurs at levels below the C-Suite. I see this most often in sales positions. A superstar salesperson delivers fantastic results but is driven by personal gain. Leaders are reluctant to confront their behavior because they are rainmakers who produce profit. This shortsighted approach inevitably results in crisis for the leader, the team and the organization. Strong leaders recognize the long-term risk of failing to confront ego-driven behavior. They have the foresight and courage to proactively address the situation long before damage control becomes the only option.

In sports, you see the ego orientation in the form of individuals drawing attention to themselves at the expense of the team.  Their criticisms are personal rather than team-focused.  Their ego orientation motivates them to get to the top of their field.  But when the going gets tough, their true colors show.  If their ego is not fed, they must act in a way they feel will regain attention.  This is a dangerous dynamic in any form of performance.

Motivated by Mastery

Mastery-oriented individuals want to win as much as ego-oriented individuals.  Let’s face it, winning is more fun than losing.  However, as the name suggests, mastery-oriented individuals are motivated by mastering their craft.  Their primary enjoyment comes from the great shot, technique, business strategy, or relationship breakthrough.  Winning is the result of perfecting their craft rather than a need to feel worthy.

Mastery-oriented performers understand the axiom who you are is not what you do.  They know that if you are in the game at the highest level, you will not win every contest.  If they fall short, they examine what they need to do to improve and focus their energies in these areas.  They do so systematically and consistently.  They are no less disappointed than ego-oriented performers by failure, but their reactions are quite different.  The focus is on improvement rather than superiority.

A Self-Aware CEO

Years ago, I was having a discussion with a CEO client of mine who said, “No one gets to be a CEO without having an ego.”  What struck me about this statement was not its content, but the fact that it was made by a client I experienced as perhaps having the lowest level of ego of any CEO I’ve ever worked with.  This CEO had a quality often lacking in performers: self-awareness.  He was able to acknowledge his own level of ego, yet behaved and performed in a way that his ego was not often apparent to those he led or interacted with.

In reality, there is a little bit of ego orientation in all performers at the highest level.  In order to achieve sustainable excellence there needs to be a much greater balance towards the mastery orientation.  Honestly assess what motivates you to perform and compete.  If it’s ego, “Check it at the door!”

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