“Drive performance.” “Incentivize results.” “Rally the troops.” “Stimulate productivity.” “Spur innovation.”
“Activate the team.”
Popular managerial motivation rhetoric implies that more “motivation,” more “intensity,” more “activation” is THE path to productivity and performance.
It is not.
In fact, the managerial ideology underlying the creation of high-pressure work environments largely ignores foundational principles of human psychology. The review of these principles as well as research specific to autistic individuals suggests that:
1) One-size-fits-all, “more is better” approach to motivation in the workplace has the potential to do more harm than good.
2) This approach is likely to be particularly harmful to the wellbeing and performance of autistic employees.
When it comes to motivation, “more” is not always better.
Many managers (as well as some teachers and parents) assume that greater motivation always “drives” performance. Hence, difficulties in performance are explained by under-motivation which can also be referred to as “laziness.” While the “laziness” assumption is problematic when applied to specific individuals, it can be dangerous at scale when applied to people or employees in general. Unfortunately, some estimate that at least half of the managers still practice Theory X management which is based on the assumption that workers are generally “lazy” and need to be monitored, controlled, and externally motivated. The increase in electronic surveillance during the pandemic and the push to return to the office can be in part explained by this assumption, along with the reluctance of managers to embrace Theory Y, which views employees as generally motivated and capable.
However, while the lack of motivation is the “usual suspect,” difficulties in performance can also be caused by over-motivation. In their essential effect on the human body and mind, “motivation,” “drive,” “arousal,”– and “any intrinsic or extrinsic stimulus that evokes a biological response,” including work-related motivational factors, are stress. Understanding that “motivation” mechanisms and stress mechanisms are connected helps explain why more motivation is not necessarily better.
“Optimal arousal” is one of the foundational ideas in psychology. It is also somewhat misleading if interpreted as an “optimal arousal” level that works for all people and all tasks. In fact, “optimal” arousal and the optimal “motivation” differ depending on the nature of the task and are unique to specific individuals.
Performance on highly complex or novel tasks is impeded by the levels of arousal that might be optimal for simple or well-learned tasks. Unfortunately, much of the managerial “motivational approaches” are rooted in industrial models developed to “motivate” assembly line workers or workers shoveling coal, or in even earlier military models. Knowledge and creativity work, however, are most effective with much lower levels of arousal and pressure than repetitive physical labor or short-term bursts of physical activity.
The length of time during which individuals operate under stress is an important factor in determining whether someone will experience damaging health effects. Both intense acute and chronic stress are detriments to mental health. Chronic stress, including poor working conditions, work overload due to understaffing, and the lack of control and autonomy can be deadly.
Moreover, individuals differ in sensitivity to stimulation. These differences are extremely relevant to the health and wellbeing of autistic employees.
Intense world: Enhanced processing, enhanced sensitivities.
The intense world theory postulates that heightened perceptual and cognitive functioning in autistic brains may lead to an intensely felt world. This may explain the enhanced perception, attention, and memory capabilities often found in autism, as well as the potential for exceptional work performance characteristic of some autistic individuals. However, the same capabilities can make the world too intense, stressful, and aversive, leading to withdrawal and social avoidance – which may be interpreted as the lack of motivation while they are in fact indicators of overwhelm.
In a recent study, Meng et al. (2021) tested whether individuals who score high on autism indicators react more intensely on sensory and emotional levels to the emotions of others, and whether this may in turn lead to overwhelm. A comparison between low-Autism-Quotient (AQ) & High-Autism-Quotient groups provided support for the intense world theory. Using repeated presentation of positive, neutral, and negative expressions and measuring brain activity with event-related potentials (ERPs) and late positive component (LPC) to evaluate the empathic neural responses & motivational attention to emotional stimuli, the study determined that compared with the low-Autism Quotient group, the high-AQ group had lower accuracy for recognizing facial expressions coupled with higher physiological reaction to repeated presentation of expressions and higher physiological reaction to repeated presentation of negative expressions. The last two findings, in particular, provide support for the intense world theory and the conclusion that “individuals with high-AQ may have an overly strong perception, evaluation, and attention to repetitive expressions, particularly, negative expressions.” These findings also strongly align with the lived experience accounts of autistic individuals that repeated presentation of negative emotion (e.g., management by fear or nagging) can lead to overwhelm and shut-down. Chronic stress is likely to result in autistic burnout.
These findings also align with the earlier research suggesting that autistic employees react negatively to emotion-laden communication and “inspirational motivation.” Specifically, emotion-laden communication and “ inspirational motivation” associated with transformational leadership tend to increase feelings of anxiety which may result in lowered job satisfaction and higher turnover intentions. Despite the popularity of transformational leadership, one size does not fit all.
In many cases, autistic employees are intrinsically motivated to complete work. In fact, many are so focused on task, they do not take breaks. Additional “motivation” is not needed – it would be excessive and overstimulating.
Getting motivation “just right.”
Both managers and individuals themselves can contribute to “just right” motivation for autistic individuals – as well as those who are highly sensitive, and for all employees.
From the management perspective, while “inspirational motivation” can be associated with anxiety, individual consideration, which involves creating supportive environments and listening to the individual needs of employees, is received well by both autistic employees and all workers.
Unfortunately, current leadership training (if offered at all) is typically based on outdated models. Future-focused training must include understanding that inclusive leadership requires motivational approaches that are individually tailored. And that in some cases, employees may not be “under” motivated, but are in fact “over” motivated, and it is important to create work environments that allow reducing stress and arousal to the optimal level, by creating psychologically safe, transparent, and supportive cultures, calming physical environments, and supporting flexibility that would allow individuals to maximize their strengths.
It is important to note that while autistic employees often experience the world more intensely, other employees may also suffer from overwhelm. Stress is cumulative, and life stressors (e.g., experiences of the pandemic) in combination with work pressures may result in employees with higher sensitivity thresholds reaching their levels of overstimulation. Even without life stressors, high-pressure environments and management by fear may similarly push the majority of employees into the unproductive zone of overstimulation and overwhelm, even if these negative effects will be first suffered by autistic employees who are wired for higher sensitivity. A wiser approach to creating optimal levels of stimulation is dialing down the pressure to avoid overstimulation of the more sensitive employees, and adding stimulation only individually – if some need higher levels of activation to be in the zone of optimal motivation.
One of the key principles of universal physical design is minimal/low physical effort. Universal/inclusive psychological design should include minimal/low stimulation with an option to dial-up on the individual level as needed. Systemically including autistic employees in the workplace may mean improving wellbeing for all.
In addition, whether employed or self-employed, we should strive to build our “best work” around productivity practices, tasks, self-motivation practices, and environments best aligned with our productivity styles rather than “one-size-fits-all” approaches, no matter how shiny, branded, or touted as best practices. “Best” productivity practices are those that maximize the productivity of each individual. And managers must remember that what works for them may not necessarily work for others. Experimenting with flexibility, individualized consideration and self-motivation may lead to remarkable results.