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Unlocking the puzzle of positive motivation – the conversation continues…

23 Jan 2020 | Cindy Vallance In this week’s tweetchat, Cindy Vallance, (Assistant Director of Knowledge, Innovation and Delivery) reflects on the recent Advance HE members’ event, The Puzzle of Positive Motivation and the thoughtful and creative contributions from speakers Shades Chaudhary (Exeter), Professor Jim Longhurst (UWE), Professor Paul Blackmore (King’s), Robiu Salisu (Bristol) and co-facilitator Doug Parkin (Advance HE) as well as over fifty participants, and invites you to continue the conversation.

What is motivation? Jim Longhurst supplied a definition from his own pre event research that it is simply “the experience of desire or aversion,” providing a useful perspective as part of the day’s expansive discussions. This idea struck a chord with the research presented by Doug Parkin on models of motivation, including the idea that the behaviours we undertake that are meant to ‘motivate’ can create reactions that are either ‘towards (desire)’ or ‘away from’ (aversion).

One model that seems to particularly resonate within higher education is that of Dan Pink who talks about if-then extrinsic rewards versus the intrinsic rewards of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Our speakers deepened this discussion with insights that included:

  • “We don’t tend to talk about the topic of motivation in the workplace and it is easy to make assumptions that the motivations of others are the same as our own. These are conversations that we need to have.”
  • “Being clear on our personal values is a useful approach to understanding our motivation and that of others.”
  • “Continue to consider the higher education ecosystem and the role that prestige and reputation play in fuelling individual academic motivation.” How can we work together to influence change on unhelpful extrinsic motivators?
  • “In the face of the challenges of time and resources, organisational cynicism, silo working and politics, bringing people together is the most impactful thing one can do.”

In today’s complex world, we may feel there are more reasons to be demotivated or to experience aversion than there are opportunities to tap into our own desires.

So, while fully acknowledging all of the challenges and issues we face, the key focus of the day was to work together to unlock the puzzle of positive motivation with our diverse gathering of participants; all with different roles and functions and from a wide array of universities.

The puzzle itself is the kind that Professor Henry Mintzberg refers to as a “puzzling puzzle” which he describes as one where:

  1. “The pieces are not supplied; some of them have to be found, others invented
  2. These pieces usually appear obscure, not clean-cut – more like fragments
  3. These fragments rarely connect neatly
  4. With no puzzle box in sight, the fragments have to create the picture”

To get the group’s creative thinking flowing, we captioned “the giant carrot of purpose” – described by Doug as an antidote to the classic ‘carrot and stick’ approach and “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 a whole range of new models emerged from the groups’ explorations 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

We hope to share the full content of all our speakers’ stories and reflections, including the rich images and emblems and our own giant carrot in a new publication planned for release later this spring. As Advance HE continues to work with the sector on this puzzling puzzle, we are keen to continue to broaden this discussion.

Add your thoughts on Advance HE Connect and/or  join us on Twitter for the Advance HE #AdvanceHE_chat #LTHE tweetchat on 29 January 2020, 2000–2100 to join the conversation on how to solve the puzzle of positive motivation.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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