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Monday, June 17, 2024
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Justin Coulson: Little Wins…

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Dr Justin Coulson says “How do I motivate my kids?”  is one of the most commonly asked questions he gets. Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Parenting expert and father of six Dr. Justin Coulson on finding the best way to motivate your children, your students or even your employees!

Here’s a quick quiz for you.

Think about the children you raise, the students you teach, or the employees you oversee. If you want them to be motivated and have the BEST attitude towards whatever you’re asking them to do, what matters most?

Take a look at the following five suggestions and rank them in order of importance when it comes to boosting motivation and emotions. Give 1 point to the least important and 5 points to the most important.

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  • support for making progress
  • recognition for good work (such as praise and acknowledgement)
  • incentives (bonuses for staff, treats for students or your children)
  • interpersonal support (building that sense of relationship)
  • clear goals

I receive emails, social media messages, or other correspondence at least weekly from someone asking “How do I motivate my kids?” Teachers ask “How do I motivate my students?” And yes, from time to time an executive will ask me that same question about staff who seem lacking in drive and motivation.

So… how did you answer my little quiz?

In relation to the research, goals aren’t the greatest motivator for many people (unless they’re autonomously chosen, which rarely happens in the workplace, the classroom, or even the home). Incentives are a motivation and emotion killer. Decades of research points this out – although we keep turning our workplaces, classrooms, and living rooms into a game show to try to motivate people to do better or do more.

The number one response to the quiz is “recognition for good work”. But while research does support that carefully administered recognition can be useful, public displays of this are often an exercise in cynicism, and many adults, students, and children often miss out on recognition despite their hard work.

If you said interpersonal support you’re getting closer. Research shows that this is important for wellbeing and motivation. We feel motivated when we feel cared about by those in the motivator chair, and we feel motivated when we care for them too! It makes a difference, but it’s not #1.

We feel motivated when we feel cared about by those in the motivator chair, and we feel motivated when we care for them too!

The most effective way to elevate motivation is to enhance feelings of competence. Psychology researcher and Harvard Business School Professor, Teresa Amabile, has found that “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions… the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” She calls it “the progress principle”. My hypothesis is that it’s because the highest form of motivation comes from within, and we feel motivated when we see ourselves making progress. Our brain goes bananas as our competence builds and endorphins and dopamine buzz through our body. Follow the dopamine!

The power of progress is fundamental to wellbeing, fulfilment, and success in life. And it is critical to motivation. Self-Determination Theory researchers, Ed Deci and Rich Ryan identify the development of competence and mastery as a basic psychological human need. (The idea was popularised by Dan Pink in his book, Drive.), But few managers, teachers, or parents understand it or know how to leverage progress to boost motivation.

If you are a parent, a teacher, or a manager, the progress principle offers clarity on the best place to focus your efforts to build motivation intrinsically in those you raise, care for, teach, or oversee.


First, let’s go back to Amabile’s comment. It’s about making progress in “meaningful work”. If you’re asking your children to make progress on a task that they find less than meaningful, motivation is hard to come by. The same goes for students. When learning is lacking in real meaning, it’s like pushing the proverbial poop up a hill. And if you’re managing a team who doesn’t believe in the work they’re doing, they lack the “why-power” to persist with a great attitude.

“Want to build a positive attitude and high motivation? It’s got to be meaningful.” Photo by Keren Fedida on Unsplash

Want to build a positive attitude and high motivation? It’s got to be meaningful.

Second, be the space shuttle. Or have your kids, students, or staff be the space shuttle. The space shuttle, in orbit, travels at around 28 000 km/h. It takes about 10 minutes to reach that speed, going through the equivalent of a backyard swimming pool full of rocket fuel every few seconds in the initial launch phase. But once that 10 minutes is done, the shuttle requires little, if any fuel, to remain orbiting the earth at 28 000 km/h.

Want to build a positive attitude and high motivation? They’ve got to get started and stick at it for 10 minutes. That is when the flow kicks in, momentum carries them forward, and working becomes easier.

Third, make progress with tiny wins. We’ve got to find ways to help those we love or work with have small successes consistently. This is because every achievement — big or small — activates our brain’s reward circuitry. Those neurochemicals boost motivation.

Tiny wins matter more than big wins – for a couple of reasons. First, you don’t win big without winning tiny first. Tiny wins open the door to momentum which gives us more wins – and ultimately the bigger wins we seek. And the reality is that big wins don’t come along often. That’s why they’re big wins! So hitting that small win, again and again, keeps us going on the path to the big one.

One of my daughters is learning the piano. She’s good. But she doesn’t ever sit down and play a complex piece of music without mistakes. Instead, she works on it line by line. By breaking it down into tiny pieces, she gains competence bit by bit through a series of tiny wins. It keeps her going until the big win at the end of the piece.

And then… we give her a harder piece.

If we only waited for the big wins, we would be waiting a long time.

In her study of 12 000 diary entries from close to 250 employees in creative industries, Professor Amabile wrote:

“Some of the progress the people made seemed almost trivial to us on the outside, really incremental, even mundane, but it ended up having a big impact on pride, confidence, emotions, and intrinsic motivation.”

She continued:

“These small wins matter more because they are so much more likely to occur compared to the big breakthroughs in the world. If we only waited for the big wins, we would be waiting a long time. And we would probably quit long before we see anything tangible come to fruition. What you need instead of the big wins is simply the forward momentum that small wins bring.”

If attitude is everything (and I’ve argued previously that it is), one of the most powerful things we can do to elevate attitude is to build competence and mastery in a relationally safe setting. And the best way to bolster competence and mastery is:

  • Dr Justin Coulson

    Help your children identify what they see (or you see) as valuable, get them started, and watch them experience progress.

  • Help your students recognise the value in what you are teaching them, get them started, and watch them experience progress.
  • Help your staff recognise the meaning in the work they do, get them started, and watch them experience progress.

As they find value and meaning, get started, and experience the progress principle, their attitude and motivation is usually likely to improve, and even more progress and positivity awaits – as well as fulfilment, and perhaps even success.

More articles from Dr Justin Coulson


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