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What Is Competence Motivation And How To Use It

You must have come across “Employee of the Month” boards in stores and workplaces that feature the best employee in a specific period. Indeed, it is a form of appreciation for the employee’s hard work. But can’t preference be given privately instead? So, why announce it to even the customers? That’s right—to motivate the other employees to work harder by triggering their competitive side.

In my previous article focusing on intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, I covered two sources of motivation that drive an individual towards productivity. This article extends the prior write-up, providing a new perspective on motivation and utilizing competence motivation to reap maximum benefits.

Why You Don’t Always Need Incentives

You don’t always need incentives to realize what is truly needed. Susan Fowler, in her book “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging,” writes,

“Outdated terminology—such as driving for results or incentivizing behavior—leads you down the wrong path if you are looking for motivation that generates productivity without compromising positive and enduring energy, vitality, and well-being.”

Productivity attached with incentives is a short-term motivating stimulus. In such a way, the mind is trained to seek incentives in any activity, the absence of which could severely impact the quality of performance.

The Idea Behind Motivation Is Empowerment

We need an inexhaustible power source within us that drives us to get out of bed every day and get things done. That empowering force comes from within—urging us to look beyond paychecks, cheat days, bonuses, and other incentives that distract us from the goal. Interestingly enough, that power source is also the insatiable kind, so you become unstoppable.

In 1959, Robert W. White published an article entitled, “Motivation Reconsidered: The Concept of Competence,” where he proposed “effectance motivation.”[1] The idea behind the concept stems from the innate instinct to strive for improvement and growth. White claimed that competence does not exist to fulfill a biological need. Instead, it helps an organism improve itself. And that is precisely our experience with competition—we see it as an opportunity to strengthen our ability through practice and experience.

Motivate Your Competence

When your competence is motivated, you are never aimless—you always have a goal.

Unlike thirst and hunger, the desire to compete and excel does not go away after a single objective is met. Instead, we find new goals, and our competitive side sets in, urging us to obtain them. Thus, depending on the degree of our desire to excel, there are two kinds of competencies:

  • Enhancing existing skills: Our existing skills, if honed continuously, can equip us with mastery and competence.
  • Mastering new skills: The desire to work hard and explore better opportunities drives us to learn new skills.

While the first kind of competence makes us feel good about ourselves, it’s only mastering new skills that can help us advance towards success. By letting our competence motivation take the lead, we enhance productivity, improve performance, become more energetic, and have increased chances of attaining satisfaction.

Lao Zou says, “He who masters others is wise. He who masters himself is enlightened.”

When we master ourselves, we become liberated from illusory beliefs and ideas that are imposed upon us. These beliefs are called domestication, a system of behavior control based on reward and punishment, which—according to Author Don Miguel Ruiz—is the biggest obstacle to personal freedom for human beings. Domestication is essentially the belief system and incentives of others telling you what you should do and how you live your life. Thus, it is living your life according to the system instead of what you think is important.

When we live a life of mastery instead of living on others’ terms, we pursue what we want. So, it’s no longer about incentives, but it’s all about becoming a better version of yourself and having such a strong belief in what you are focused on that you can’t help but spread the word to others!

The Psychology Behind Competence Motivation

A psychological take on competence motivation reveals plenty about how our mind functions and the choices we make. With a deeper understanding of our psyche, we can better equip our competence and motivation to use.

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. Curiosity is one of the most driving competence motivators as it pushes people to explore, discover, and learn. You could either be:

  • Exploring generally without a specific goal in mind;
  • Or conducting focused research with a particular goal in mind or to fill a “knowledge gap.”

No matter your intention, you’re bound to find something interesting to help you move closer to your goal.

Putting the Pieces Together

The famous Greek expression “Eureka!” speaks volumes about the joy humans seek from discovery and invention. We find pleasure in solving math equations, reaching the climax of novels and movies, coming up with a ground-breaking business idea, learning a new skill, and the list goes on.

We love unwinding complexities and acquiring new knowledge. The joy that settles in after completing such a pleasurable activity can inspire us to improve ourselves personally and professionally.

We Love a Good Challenge

On the path to self-discovery and improvement, we get to decide the difficulty level of the tasks we will take up, just like in a video game. These three levels challenge our competencies, and we decide accordingly.

  • Easy: We all love easy things because they don’t require a lot of effort, but after a while, it gets boring and monotonous.
  • Moderate: Also known as the optimum level of complexity in psychology, these activities are neither too difficult nor too easy. We are generally inclined towards this difficult level.
  • Challenging: A challenging but conquerable task looks good once in a while, but it can be a huge turn-off when faced repetitively.

Depending on our taste, we are motivated to take up tasks in life that help us evolve into better beings. And if you like things easy, then you might just be stuck at level one forever!

The Sentimental Value of Our Goals and Dreams

The sentimental value of a dream keeps us focused in life. We all want to do different things in life, and each goal holds a lot of meaning for us.

However, chasing dreams isn’t entirely about fulfilling one’s desires and meeting needs. Somewhere, a part of us wants the world to reflect the change we have witnessed in ourselves after achieving something. This realization comes with the cognizance of what’s at stake in making certain decisions and choosing or abandoning a different course of life.

Dreams can become real when you are focused on building on your competency.

Many of us believe that the great turning points and opportunities in our lives happen by chance—that they’re out of our control. But Dr. Christian Busch, author of “The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck,” spent a decade exploring how, if acted upon, unexpected encounters can expand our random social encounters can enhance our worldview, expand our social circles, and create new professional opportunities.

Serendipity is usually about connecting dots that have previously remained elusive. Busch’s findings suggest that Good luck isn’t just chance—it can be learned and leveraged. When you are perceptive, curious, open-minded, and eager to see opportunities, others might see only negatively. If you notice something unusual but can connect that bit of information with something else, you are in the right mindset for achieving serendipity.

The first step is to dream. Imagine the possibilities of creating something deeply personal and fulfilling. But, of course, a dream is just that if you don’t take steps to make it a reality. This leads us to the belief stage.

Next, to believe is to define and document your dream—what it is and isn’t and how it works to meet your personal needs. But it also needs to work for other people.

Finally, aligning your dream and belief connects your dream and reality with others. If you set realistic and unrealistic goals, embrace uncertainty, and stay positive, you will be setting yourself up to achieve.

Dream + Believe + Align = Achieve

Final Thoughts

Only you can choose the goals you set. Motivation is critical in meeting your goals. But choosing goals is not enough—you need to select the right goals and define a plan that keeps you accountable for meeting your goals.

All of the above accounts for competence motivation because we give meaning to life through our little and significant actions. Competence motivation is about finding a purpose in life and sticking to it. It’s the vision for a better future for ourselves and the world around us that keeps us motivated.

More Tips for Boosting Your Motivation

  • 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams
  • What Is Motivation And How To Get Motivated (Your Ultimate Guide)


APA Psycnet: Motivation reconsidered: The concept of competence

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Motivation in the workplace is a big topic, more so right now due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the onset of the “new normal” working environment. Motivation is featured highly on every leader’s agenda as the quick transition to working from home (WFH) took place, coupled with the mass adoption of digital forms of communication as the main point of connection.

There has been a shifting landscape as the tectonic plates of aspiration, value, and meaning collide with what motivates individuals and teams in the workplace.

In this article, I will talk about how to improve individual employee motivation and how to improve team motivation, as what motivates a team to high performance can differ from that of an employee.

Now, let’s dive into what’s really going on. Here are three powerful ways to improve employee motivation post-pandemic.

1. Give Employees Autonomy

I think a large majority of companies have missed a golden opportunity to build trust during the pandemic and subsequent new normal era. Instead, they chose to focus on measuring productivity and quantifying efficiency over autonomy and trust. As a result, they inadvertently squandered the opportunity that was in front of them.

At the same time, for the employee, the veil has been lifted, the curtain pulled back, and the magic has worn off. However you want to look at it, the shift from 9 to 5 office culture to WFH has left many employees wondering why—why did I tolerate the long commute to the office? We’re all those in-person meetings necessary?

Work-life in the 21st Century has been put under the microscope and scrutinized because of a virus. employees are often packed like sardines into hot and sweaty train carriages or sitting motionless in rush hour traffic for hours on end, not to mention the pressure of carefully planning the day’s outfit all just to be seen working at the desk and readily available to anyone who wants to stop by for a disruptive but well-meaning natter.

While the move to WFH has provided some additional benefits, such as more time with family, a more flexible working location, no commute, and casual dress, it has also caused some issues to show up.

These issues relate directly to business stress and health. They include increased expectations around being available beyond the scope of normal working hours, being hyper-visible online, answering Slack messages at the drop of a hat, increased use of urgent language, and daily video training calls scheduled intrusively throughout lunch breaks.

All of which to say, work-life balance and personal power have been compromised, and a huge opportunity for increased focus and motivation are missed due to the factors I’ll explain below.

The Home Has Become the Office

Society is working longer and harder than before and finds it harder to switch off because now, the office is also the home. Managers who understand that the boundaries between personal and professional have been violated and understand that working from home isn’t necessarily ideal will get the best from their employees.

Managers can be more thoughtful by showing respect and awareness of the situation, such as cramped home environments (not everyone has a home office), children causing general disruption, managing household visitors from cleaners, parcel deliveries, and grocery drop-offs, combined with the added pressure to always be available online.

To motivate employees, where possible, allow them to gain freedom over their daily work. When employees feel trusted to make decisions and operate independently, it promotes feelings of well-being and self-confidence.

A 2020 study on the future of work showed that with covid-19 and the new normal, more people than ever are moving jobs for autonomy and flexibility. “People want to control when they work, where they work, and what they’re working on,” says Arvind Malhotra Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.[1]

The upshot is that the level of autonomy that employees experienced during the pandemic has, in turn, led to changes in employee expectation around the degree of autonomy that they expect going forward.

Simply put, employees now value autonomy more than they did in the pre-pandemic era. Therefore, companies that adapt to this will inevitably attract the best talent by default. Those that don’t will lose out, and rightly so.

This new outlook on life is also impacting the way employees view the traditional working hours of 9 to 5. Business owners must now consider rethinking this paradigm as it allows employees to complete work in blocks or batches, which is more convenient for the employee.

In essence, autonomy in all regards is now the attribute employees are prioritizing and can be used as a method of motivation.

2. Go Deeper

Taking it a step further, feeling valued as an employee and respected for who you are as a person beyond your role at the company is poised to become a key factor in motivation in the workplace.

People want to feel understood, valued, and respected. The introduction of “slack time” (i.e., letting employees focus on projects outside the scope of their normal role, e.g., developing a side project, learning to code, or picking up a language) has been adopted by many of the major tech players for some time.

When companies embrace the pursuits and endeavors of the individual beyond the workplace and promote them internally, it makes the employee feel valued and in turn creates meaning. This should not be overlooked. The value of doing meaningful work is what it’s all about.

I have experienced this myself working for Playground XYZ, the innovative attention-based mobile company headquartered out of Australia that readily embraced my role as an author, entrepreneur, and mentor, which made it such a privilege to work for them. When meaning can be attached to the job, it promotes a huge win for the company as employees identify more deeply with the products they are representing, the values of the company, and its core mission.

What companies should consider as it relates to employee motivation levels is the optimal level of side-project time to boost motivation in business. Does 10% make an adequate difference? How about 40%?

Whatever the percentage is, companies that can praise employees’ talents at the individual level and showcase them as valued members of the team will thrive.

3. Be Mindful When Using Technology

Zoom fatigue? We’ve all been there—a series of grueling back-to-back Zoom calls, flickering eyelids, the mental fog at the end of a long day fuelled by caffeine and inhaled lunches, and the urge to write just one more email.

But stop—this is not what the future of work will look like. There is a dire need for the consideration of building a “technology detox” into the normal routine of the working day of every employee so that it is adopted and becomes common practice.

Mindfulness in the workplace is another method of improving engagement, cognitive focus, and productivity. The mistake is reconciling that longer hours equal greater results.

Instead, having flexibility around walking meetings, in-person catch-ups, and time away from the requirement to be contactable boosts positivity and makes employee motivation levels sore. Imagine if every employee felt this burst of life.

The pandemic has shown that work can be done outside of the office, but there is a giant opportunity waiting to be unlocked. Those companies that find the appropriate balance will prevail.

Improving Team Motivation in the Workplace

Now, here are two important points to consider for improving team motivation in the workplace.

Doing the Opposite

This might sound counterintuitive, but it works. Yet, so many leaders get this wrong. The principle is that when you’re winning, it’s time to drive the team harder and when you’re losing, it’s time to show relatability and understanding.

Why then do so many leaders fail to put this into practice when it truly matters?

Most leaders panic when they see falling revenue numbers and instead of adopting a nurturing growth-centered presence, they go on a rampage, micromanaging and haranguing, destroying momentum, and creating a pressure cooker-type environment, which only serves to stifle and demotivate the team further.

I encourage you to try out doing the opposite if your team is currently behind on their numbers right now. Follow this strategy, and see how your attitude changes the results and goes a long way to building the momentum back up.

Notice how new information flows to you and fresh insights that would previously have remained hidden are suddenly revealed by the team. It takes courage to do this, but it demonstrates trust and empathy from which a newfound team dynamic can be developed. This is the glue that forms a strong bond between team members and their manager, which in turn promotes sharing of ideas and culture.

At times of heightened stress, motivate through encouragement, learning, and growth. The last thing your team needs is for you to turn into an overbearing manager who displays your stress levels for all to see.

This is poor leadership. The best leaders can control their emotions while giving employees what they need—a helping hand to understand that they will rise to the top through preparation and a solid plan of action.

Maintaining Core Values

When employees understand and operate by the company values, they have a road map, a battle plan, a way to make decisions that frees them from the mental overload of decision paralysis. When company values aren’t clear, made obvious, or ingrained, the culture of the organization will suffer dramatically. It will be lifeless.

Values are the rudder in the water that directs the wind in the sails and serve as guiding principles that must be taught, repeated daily, and lived by.

Ask yourself this, “what do we stand for?”

If you can’t answer this from a company perspective, then you are rudderless and when the storm hits, be prepared to take a battering.

More Tips on Motivating Employees

  • How To Boost Employee Motivation During Difficult Times


UNC Kenan-Flagler: Shaping the future of work

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