Developing teacher motivation, Part 2

We’re using this holiday break as an opportunity to reflect on school culture. This post is the second in a three-part series discussing the findings of Primed to Perform, a book that develops a framework for understanding motivation in the workplace. In this series, we will examine the book’s conclusions within the context of teacher morale.

Edward Deci, director of the human motivation program at the University of Rochester, has said, “The proper question is not, ‘How can people motivate others?’ but rather, ‘How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?’” That’s what this post is all about!

In our last piece, we introduced a framework for understanding the sources of positive and negative motivation for teachers in a school setting. Before reading part 2, we recommend you check it out here:

In this piece, we will discuss the keys to great culture and performance within an organization. These are the actions or steps an organization can take that influence the 6 sources of employee motivation (play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia).

Before presenting the findings, we have to discuss what the authors call a Total Motivation (or ToMo) score. This is a metric ranging from +100 to -100 that attempts to measure the effect size of organizational actions on employee motivation. These figures come from survey responses conducted across numerous industries that inquire into the positive and negative sources of motivation. The 3 sources of positive motivation (play, purpose, and potential) are assigned positive values, while the 3 sources of negative motivation (emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia) are assigned negative values. All of the numbers are then weighted by their relative importance (this weighting is discussed in Part 1 of the series). The greater your school’s ToMo scores are, the better you can expect staff motivation to be.

Let’s dive in! These are the keys to building great culture and a high performing staff:

Leadership – It should go without saying that leadership is very important in any organization. Leaders who demonstrate qualities of positive motivation can add an average of 50 points to their organization’s ToMo scores. What does this mean? It means leaders should be seen internalizing a sense of play, purpose, and potential in their own work, while limiting the outward display of negative motivation.

For administrators and school leaders, the authors would suggest taking a moment to look in the mirror to reflect on the question, “How are the sources of motivation present or absent in my own personal and professional life?” The takeaway is that you can’t model for others what you don’t have for yourself. Start now by identifying just a few steps that will improve your own level of motivation at work.

Identity – An organization’s identity can be observed in many places. The common ones include its mission, behavioral code, history, and traditions. The difference between a strong and weak identity can equates to 65 points of ToMo.

For school leaders, this poses many questions to reflect on. Who crafted your school’s mission statement? Is it a few decades old? Was it created by a faculty that no longer works there? How are staff behavioral expectations set? Are they imposed on the team from the top or did teachers have a direct say in setting them? What are your school team’s traditions? Do they exist at all? What do you do as a school to sustain and cherish them?

Role Design – Everyone is familiar with the traditional job description attached to nearly any employment posting these days. It turns out, perhaps surprisingly, that having good role design (and following through with it) is the most powerful of the culture keys. The difference between good and bad role design equates to 87 points of ToMo. To get this right it is important to balance repetitive, tactical tasks with creative, adaptive ones.

Consider the difference between these two schools: School 1 - administrators require teachers to have identical lesson plan templates, to use scripted curriculums, and to structure their classrooms in the same way. School 2 – school leaders, with an eye on developing their staff for the long term, ask teachers to brainstorm ideas on how to reach students with different learning styles, collaborate with peers to create lessons that meet a department’s yearly goal, or identify the power standards that students have to master. Clearly, school 2 is finding more ways for its teachers to use their creativity in the classroom.

Career Paths – Organizations that thoughtfully create effective career ladders can increase ToMo by 63 points. There is a clear connection between career paths and the “potential” and “inertia” motivators. In designing a good career ladder, leaders need to be mindful of two things. First, employees must be able to self-identify the skills and mindsets they need to move up the ladder. And second, an organization needs to have a variety of career paths available to embrace a wide range employee strengths and passions.

Having good career paths has been a deficiency in education for a long time. How is it that the vast majority of teachers work in school environments where a formal career ladder doesn’t even exist? As a result, we shouldn’t be surprised that teachers conclude the only way to move up is to move out of the classroom. We’ll take a deeper dive into career paths in Part 3 of this series.

Compensation - As we mentioned in our last piece, compensation is one of the trickiest parts of the motivation puzzle to figure out. Compensation plans that contain inconsistent policies can result in feelings of unfairness. On the other hand, “Compensation plans that celebrate growth can add an average of 48 points of ToMo.”

When it comes to compensation, most schools have a big problem on their hands. Teachers are constantly given mixed signals as to whether they should focus on student achievement in the classroom or career-advancing development credits outside of school. In addition, consider the feelings of unfairness a highly effective, early-career teacher experiences when they discover more veteran (but less effective) teachers receiving salary increases simply because they stuck around long enough. We will also cover compensation systems in more detail in Part 3.

Community – The authors note, “Strong communities are an effective way to inspire purpose, while also enabling the vulnerability needed to reduce emotional pressure.” Thus, it’s no surprise that the difference between strong and weak communities at work results in 60 points of ToMo.

While building a sense of community takes time, we think there are a few easy starting points for schools to explore. First, consider leveraging your most energetic teachers for the school’s culture committee. And call it something other than a culture committee! Using teacher recommendations during the hiring process can help you find candidates that will be a strong cultural fit. Finally, think of how you can modify daily or weekly school activities and meetings to further promote a sense of community at school.

Performance Management – This process, often associated with dreadful meetings in a supervisor’s office, is where employees receive feedback on their efforts. Frequently, these reviews are based on a disingenuous set of observations that miss the context of an employee’s work. Most employers commit the “cardinal sin of performance management” by focusing “entirely on tactical performance at the expense of the adaptive, and/or focusing on using emotional and economic pressure to prod results.” The difference between strong and weak performance management systems yields 41 points of ToMo. While we will explore performance management systems more in-depth in the months to come, we encourage the use of systems that are tied directly into a school’s observation and coaching cycles.

Next time, in part 3 of this series, we’ll take a closer look at career ladders, compensation systems, and good role design for educators.