Using Moving Motivators

Talking about what intrinsically motivates us is sometimes difficult; hell, sometimes even understanding what motivates us is difficult. The Moving Motivators exercise (available for sale or as a free download there, as an online tool here, or as a Miro template) provides a framework to think about and talk through ten motivators that most people can relate to. In my experience this takes between 30 and 45 minutes per participant. Over the last year, I’ve run this exercise in several contexts: with many of my direct reports, in my management peer group, as a favor for a friend, and with my mentee. I continue to find it extremely useful as well as fascinating, so I’ve collected my thoughts about how to facilitate it.

The exercise has the participant order the motivators from most to least important to them, then, in the context of a job or life change, consider which would become more or less fulfilled through that change. It’s a good way to compare options and think about trade-offs: if a job would give me a lot more independence but be very chaotic and my top motivator is Order, it might not be the job for me. If my top motivators are Freedom and Power, with Order somewhere below the middle line, the job could be a good fit.

I start by setting the stage to create a calm and relaxed environment that invites thoughtfulness. I describe how this works in general, emphasizing that there’s no right or wrong answer, and that it’s fine to take their time while moving the cards; also, that the order isn’t final, they can change it at any time. The primary usefulness of this exercise, in my view, comes while moving the cards around and talking about them and I explicitly say that – if I just wanted to know the order, we wouldn’t have to have a meeting for it. Often, the person doesn’t know where to start, so I tell them what people usually do: either go through the cards in a random order, or pick out the most obvious motivators first and then fit the rest in. If they move the first one in silence, I’ll prompt them again to think out loud. I don’t expect them to talk the whole time, though! Leave them enough quiet space to let their thoughts develop unhurriedly and don’t step in unless they seem stuck.

My primary question to the participant is always: “What does this motivator mean to you?” Some of the descriptions are flexible for interpretation, while some of the cards have descriptions which are not the first thing which comes to mind looking at the name of the card; Freedom, for example, is described in the direction of autonomy, whereas most people’s first thought has been more along the lines of either work-life flexibility, which is not really represented otherwise, or the ability to explore, which falls under Curiosity. You as the facilitator don’t have to agree with the participant’s interpretation of the card; what’s important is that they are able to define it for themselves and you understand what they mean. It can help to find a common understanding by comparing cards, such as, “How do you see the difference between Relatedness and Acceptance?” or “What you’re describing sounds more like Mastery than Curiosity to me, what do you think?”

When someone is having a hard time deciding where a card fits in the order of importance, it can be helpful to negate the motivator. “Can you think of a situation you were in when you did not have any power? How did that make you feel?” You can also suggest that they compare situations, for example if they are having a hard time ordering Curiosity and Relatedness: “Would you rather be bored at a job where you have great relations with your colleagues, or have an interesting job where your colleagues are stand-offish and all about the work?” You should present both options neutrally and as equally valid – “Would you rather be CEO of a company that murders puppies or a janitor at a company that rescues puppies?” isn’t going to get you very far.

Gently challenging the participant can also be part of facilitating this, though it’s much easier to do that when you already know the person well. Here are some questions I’ve asked different people:

“A couple months ago, you said you really wanted to hit the next level at review time. Does that play into Status?”
“Given what I know of you, I expected Relatedness to be a lot higher. Want to talk about that?”
“We haven’t talked about Status at all, and there are only a couple cards left. Are you hesitating to pick Status because you feel like you shouldn’t care about it?”
“You’ve put Freedom very high, but a big part of your job is closely collaborating within your team. What does that mean?”

When the participant has put all the cards in order, I ask if they’re happy with it, if it looks like them. Sometimes they’ll want to change a few cards around, so we iterate on it a bit. Then we move on to the second part.

For my direct reports, since they’re generally not looking for my support in changing jobs, I’ve adapted the second part of the exercise to instead consider which of their top three motivators are not being completely fulfilled in their current position and what we could do to improve that. As an example, Curiosity has always been above the middle line for my department of backend engineers: “I have plenty of things to investigate and think about.” If that’s not fulfilled, maybe the person needs explicit encouragement to take a few hours a week for experimenting and exploring; maybe there’s a side project they could work on; in a drastic case, maybe they need a transfer to a different team to work on different topics.

During this exercise, the participant has chosen to share their values and personal motivators, and I take a minute to check out at the end: I thank the other person for their openness and trust; I usually ask if it’s been useful or has brought clarity. As a last step, I remind the participant to screenshot or take a photograph of the results if they want to.

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