It’s seductive to try to figure out the “why” or “root cause” behind behavior, but it’s ultimately impossible. There are far too many biases and psychological detours that lead you astray from really of really understanding why someone decided one path over an other. Fortunately, it’s possible to debug motivation the same way that you debug code. The process of unpacking, running through it with break points and looking at context variables, helps build a shared context which can help both parties understand and then ultimately improve/change behavior.

One framework that underpins my thinking is Daniel Pink’s motivation equation in Drive, specifically: ß \[ Motivation = {Autonomy * Mastery * Purpose} \]

Autonomy: The Desire to direct our own lives: Am I empowered to make my own decisions? Are there clear DRIs I can go to with questions? Am I blocked by organizational burdens?

Mastery: The urge to get better at something that matters: Am I getting better at my craft? Am I learning from others? Do I feel empowered to ask people for help?

Purpose: The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves: Do I believe in what I’m working on? Do I know who it’s for? Can I empathize with their needs?

Given these base drivers of motivation, it’s helpful to use Five whys to you can use the 5 why’s to dig into motivation. While recursively going down the path of 5-why’s think about motivation. Are one of those dimensions lacking? Has this lack driven some of the behaviors? For example:

  1. Why do you feel this project is off track?
  2. Why do you think that Bob isn’t contributing enough?
  3. Do you think that Bob is holding the team of project back?
  4. Why do you think that’s the case?

The risk with Five whys is that it can feel belittling, so remember:

  • Don’t make it confrontational, be there to help them think through why something isn’t working.
  • Try to put yourself in their shoes.
  • Assume good intent.
  • Be ok with silence, let people talk.
  • Assume people know what they’re talking about.