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Unlocking the puzzle of positive motivation

29 May 2020 | Cindy Vallance Cindy Vallance, Assistant Director, Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery, Advance HE, introduces a new publication, The puzzle of positive motivation, a compendium of reflections and ideas about the forces that motivate.

Advance HE convened a face-to-face members’ event on the topic of Unlocking the puzzle of positive motivation earlier in 2020 that now feels a lifetime ago. A ‘tweet chat’ also followed the event, continuing the conversation and engaging with staff through nearly a thousand comments on the topic of motivation over the course of just an hour.

So what has happened since? The disruptive force of COVID-19 has meant that there is no end to advice focusing on supporting motivation to face, survive and thrive within our new global reality. For instance, Harvard Business Review provides tips on How to Keep your team motivated, remotely and the World Economic Forum outlines 5 ways US universities are helping tackle COVID-19.

Our original event was co-created with our Advance HE members who engaged in rich discussion that included their own thoughts on the forces that motivated them. The result was a host of graphical motivation ‘snapshots’ contained in this publication.

Advance HE Principal Adviser, Doug Parkin, grounded these participant reflections within a high level summary of representational models and theories that demonstrate multiple manifestations of motivation and that help to describe “why-we-do-what-we-do-in-the-way-that-we-do-it.”

To get the group’s creative thinking flowing, we captioned “the giant carrot of purpose” – included in the range of models and described by Doug as an antidote to the classic ‘carrot and stick’ approach: “a modern metaphor to capture what unites us, the shared goal, vision or purpose that releases our hidden human energies and brings work or learning to life.” It is that fundamental thing, that vision or big idea, that transcends our differences. Working with the concept of motivation is intense and creative work and we then worked with the group to explore a whole range of new models, including:

  • A zoetrope – motivation itself is not static, it is constantly changing
  • An aboriginal talking stick that actively engages every individual in the group
  • A plant that thrives – or not – based on its soil and growing conditions
  • A rocket ship comprising a host of different motivations
  • A journey of metaphors – a mythical land
  • A moving vehicle driven and fuelled by purpose.

When Advance HE planned this members’ event we also chose to invite guest speakers and to reach beyond some of the ‘usual suspects’ whose views we regularly see shared across the HE sector. We asked for our speakers’ agreement to have their sessions transcribed for this publication so we could share their words and provocations in their own voices. Are these thought pieces still relevant as we grapple with the next normal(s) of a COVID-19 world? We believe the answer is a resounding yes. This publication contains the following accounts:

Paul Blackmore is a Professor of Higher Education at the Policy Institute, King’s College London. Paul shares his research on the impact of prestige as a motivational force in academic life and how this differs from a focus on organisational reputation. These tensions still exist in a COVID-19 world and will need to be grappled with in determining the future shape and size of our universities and of our sector. In considering what this means, he reflects, “If we assume others have the same motivations as us then our Titanic goes to the bottom of the sea…it means if you can span a boundary then that is a very powerful ability.”

Shraddha (Shades) Chaudhary is a Communications and Engagement Officer within Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Exeter. In her thought piece, Shades discusses her own approach to motivating others, the importance of mobilising around a common cause and the challenges in doing so. She emphasises the importance of “promoting engagement through purpose, feeling valued, asking directly for what is needed, maintaining a comprehensive communication and feedback loop and speaking the language of the listener.”

Jim Longhurst is a Professor of Environmental Science and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Environment and Sustainability at the University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol. In his piece, Jim reflects on his passion for the environment and on additional motivators which inform the work he does including “working with people, helping people to develop, seeing people do things they perhaps at first didn’t think they might be able to do.”

Robiu Salisu is a student inclusion officer with responsibility for improving Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Undergraduate Students’ experiences at the University of Bristol. His piece focuses on how he uses his own personal values to inform his work with others. He shares the approach he has taken to identifying his core values and encourages all readers to consider their own values. He reflects, “I think this is a really important area of work, helping people to find what motivates them to get the best from their roles.”

Perhaps the most striking observation on motivation contained in all of these accounts is not so much about the puzzle of what we need to personally do to get out of bed each day: days that right now are filled with video teleconferences, emails, decisions, deadlines and anxious concern for our current and future physical, mental and financial health and wellbeing. Instead, during this historic time of COVID-19, perhaps more than ever, the act of leading includes considering how we individually and collectively span boundaries and demonstrate inclusive and genuine compassion for others. We do this by listening to many voices and by developing these relationships; curious to understand others’ creativity and capabilities and the motivations that they bring to work and by being honest in sharing our own motivations and vulnerabilities. In this way we can chart a course towards a more positive future that reaches well beyond the pandemic.

Cindy Vallance

Assistant Director, Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery, Advance HE

Acknowledgments: With appreciation and thanks to our event speakers / writers and member participants, to my co-facilitator Doug Parkin, and to Giles Brown and other colleagues across Advance HE who helped to make this publication and the event that preceded it a reality.

The full publication The puzzle of positive motivation is available as a member benefit.

Advance HE’s Leadership Summit, Leading with Humanity: Now and Next? - Leadership Summit 2020 is now online, 10 June 2020. Find out more and book your place


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