What Motivates Motivation? A New Theory


Susan Fowler is a senior consulting partner with the Ken Blanchard Companies and wrote a book about failures in motivation theory. She’s also written for Harvard Business Review several times. In sum, she’s vetted.

She argues that Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” — which you can argue is the most important motivational theory basically ever created – needs to be drastically re-evaluated in terms of core functions such as work and raising children.

Wait… what?

Here’s Fowler’s basic arguments, laid out.

Rather than the “hierarchy of needs” — physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and then finally self-actualization — the research is now trending in a different direction. Newer thought involves three major universal drivers tied to motivation:

  • Autonomy: This is people thinking they have choices and control their own actions.
  • Relatedness: This is people wanting to care about/be cared about by others and think that all that is happening without ulterior motives.
  • Competence: This is people wanting to feel good at meeting challenges and gaining skills.

These concepts, when presented in Harvard Business Review, relate to people being more effective at work. However, these are fundamental concepts that can be applied universally, including to a child’s attitude towards learning.

As an example: when you read with your child, the three bolded terms above should also be aspects you’re trying to develop and empower. In this case, autonomy would involve the child wanting to read and even selecting the book.  Relatedness would refer to reading as a shared concept; it becomes more than simply reading a book, and can evolve to a cherished time for the child where he/she feels safe. Competence is, basically, the acquisition of reading/writing skills so that the child can do many of the functions on their own (when they enter their school years).

The goals are the same, then – so it’s one way to think about the time you spend reading with your child. Namely:

  • What can I do to foster their autonomy in this process?
  • What can I do to make them feel safe and connected as they do this?
  • What can I do to help them develop competence and confidence?

Every parenting approach has validity in its own right, and this is just a different way to think about it. (And while you’re at it, you could apply the same logic to thinking about your job, or any other pursuits.)

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