How to “Create conditions for people to do and be their best”?

by Didier Marlier on Saturday November 21st, 2009

Following the great interest (thank you for all your mails and please feel free to share your thoughts directly on the blog) of last week’s post, I thought it would be good to complete the scene on how to avoid the “Going Limbic” syndrome.

Years ago, my partners and I came across the research done by Australian psychologist Michael Apter whose “Reversal Theory” becomes increasingly commented and given a fairer treatment nowadays.

Building on it, we suggest that human beings “float” between several psychological states of which four are of particular interest when it comes to motivation.

Relaxation: Takes places when I am self confident. I am prepared and my leader shows trust in me, drawing my attention on the fact that I will succeed.

Anxiety: Is the opposite state to self-confidence/relaxation. I am nervous and my boss is “throwing oil on the fire” by constantly reminding me of past failures in a “punishing” style.

Excitement: Happens when I am highly self-motivated. I am so thrilled and my leader keeps on intellectually and emotionally engaging me into the future

Passivity: Also called Boredom is the opposite. I am demotivated and uninterested and our boss keeps on coming back with “Roles, Rules & Restrictions” instead of helping us dream about a Higher Purpose.

So one cannot be Relaxed and Anxious nor Excited and Passive at the same time. They are oppositional states. However, and that is where it become really interesting, one can be Relaxed and Excited, Relaxed and Passive etc. These are the four fundamental zones for Motivation:

The Performance Zone: When I am relaxed/self-confident and excited/ motivated I am in the Performance Zone… I want to succeed and I trust I can. I am prepared and our leader is showing signs of confidence in our team and is capable of making us see/dream of a Higher Purpose. To use a sports analogy, the French World Cup team of 1998 was kept in that state by its coach Jacquet (that was when the French did not need Thierry Henry to cheat to win their games…)

The Stress Zone: Our leader is capable of motivating us to reach the goal, however his attitude, language, stories and examples are all about the possibility of failing and consequences if we do so. He seems to doubt our capacities. The Brazilian team 1998 was plunged in that state by their well intentioned coach who seemed to believe that stress and pressure were great motivators…

The Depression Zone: Reminds us of the student who hasn’t done anything during the whole year and is now weeks away from the final exam: He knows it is too late to do anything (passive) and is aware that the guillotine will soon be activated (failure and Dad’s reaction). It is a state of helplessness, prostration close to the “Freeze” described in the previous post.

The Re-Creational Zone: Is more ambivalent. On the one hand, it is the needed place to safely recover as one can’t always be in the Performance Zone. It is the time to literally “Re-Create” ourselves through new thinking, readings, meetings, explorations of all kinds. However staying there for too long may bring us more on the Passivity than Relaxation side and could drift into depression.

So, the Holy Graal is the Performance Zone. And how do we get our people there?

How do you move an individual/team from Passivity/Boredom to Excitement? “By raising the bar! Make them dream! Motivate them! By a proper use of the Pain/Gain equation! By creating dissatisfaction with actual situation etc…” is what we hear most often. These can be summarized under the Challenge behavioural banner. I need to challenge my team if I want them to lift their energy from passivity to excitement. However, the danger is high if I don’t accompany my “Challenge lever” with another that will ensure we play in the Relaxation and not Anxiety world. This lever is called “Support”. It is about encouraging not punishing, servant leadership, allowing mistakes, etc.

Too often wonderful and energetic leaders are being punished themselves by incompetent coaches, suggesting to tame their drive and energy. And we see otherwise energetic leaders trying to play the role of “softies” that they are really not made for, quickly reverting to their old style. That is plain wrong. When a leader is high on the challenge axis, leave him there and help him nurture a high support attitude as well.

Seeing where our team/individual followers is/are (Performance, Stress, Depression or Re-Creation) is intuitively rather easy. Test it. Then ask yourself what more challenge and or more support would mean in their specific case…

At your disposal for further exploration. On my way to fascinating CEO’s co-learning process in São-Paulo then back to Switzerland to further observe how some conservative and creative Swiss Private Bankers deal with the unusual circumstances they are hit by.

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2 Responses to “How to “Create conditions for people to do and be their best”?”

  1. Some synchronicity here, or likemindedness manifesting itself, Didier!

    I have just posted the first of a series of blogs about how and why managers make mistakes that demotivate and stress people, despite the clear guides about how to do it right. It’s at

    Enjoy your trip!

  2. With Didier, I was one of those partners who came across Apter’s work years ago. Another member of our group was a Swedish psychologist, Reino Wilkman. He overlaid a framework of psychological needs onto Apter’s model in a way that really helped me. Since then I have experimented further and have used the concept with hundreds of managers, executives and individuals. I have even built and tested a simple diagnostic tool to help people understand more fully where they are and how to move their people and teams.

    The overlay works like this. We have 6 psychological needs that can be met from our work; we each have different levels of need for them, and the intensity of need will vary over time. However what is common is that if our particular level of need is not met, we will suffer; sometimes consciously knowing what is missing, but more frequently not understanding the root cause of our dissatisfaction. The 6 needs are:
    1. Security; the feeling that the environment today and tomorrow will be more or less like yesterday and that our work conditions will not change too abruptly or frequently.
    2. Belonging; how well I feel connected to my colleagues or the social groups at work.
    3. Appreciation; the sense that I am valued by significant people at work. (Interestingly a huge amount of effort and money is wasted by creating complex symbols of appreciation like awards or titles. Often, a simple, direct and authentic statement, “I have noticed how much effort you have put into this project; it has made a real difference to the result; I would like to thank-you” coming from a significant person can have an even more powerful or lasting effect.)
    4. Achievement; how clearly can I see the links between the work I do and a tangible, worthwhile result.
    5. Independence; how much freedom do I have to make decisions or influence how I do my work each day.
    6. Stimulation / Growth; what am I learning, and how does my work help me grow in confidence or competence.

    The first 3 needs, Security, Belonging and Appreciation influence the Support axis, moving people from anxious towards relaxed. The last 3; Achievement, Independence and Stimulation / Growth work on the Challenge axis helping people from boredom towards excitement. I have found in my work that when people are out of the Performance Zone, this summary helps them to point directly to one or more of the needs that are missing. It gives them a useful indicator about where to focus their efforts to improve their own or team’s situation. (This model works equally well for individuals and teams, whilst also providing useful insights into whole organisations)

    There is an interesting corollary from the model: The challenge needs are typically found in the task, the content of the work people do and the way they organise themselves. Conversely, the 3 support needs are more likely to be met by the team, one’s colleagues and the work environment. This important split can block us from reaching the Performance Zone if we concentrate on one at the expense of the other. As predicted by Apter’s model, if the task is predominant or the culture is ‘deliver or die’, and little attention is paid to relationships, you end up in the Stress Zone. Conversely, if ‘teamwork’ becomes the raison d’etre, then be prepared for a lot of time in the Parking Zone exploring each other’s feelings and making sure everyone is included, comfortable and happy.



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