This podcast was originally published on In Their Own Words for The W. Edwards Deming Institute
How do you tap into intrinsic motivation when the assignments (or jobs) are boring or feel irrelevant? Andrew and David talk about the role of challenge in intrinsic motivation, including why being challenged is key to innovation and improvement.
0:00:02.7 Andrew Stotz: My name is Andrew Stotz and I will be your host as we continue our journey into the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Today, I’m continuing my discussion with David P. Langford, who has devoted his life to applying Dr. Deming’s philosophy to education and he offers us his practical advice for implementation. Today’s topic is the role of challenge in intrinsic motivation. David, take it away.
0:00:30.6 David P. Langford: Hello, Andrew. Good to be back.
0:00:33.2 AS: Good to see you.
0:00:33.3 DL: So how challenging is challenge, that’s really what we’re after about here today. So this is part four in a five-part podcast series we’ve been doing on intrinsic motivation, and so when I first encountered the concept of intrinsic motivation and it’s actually when I was getting my undergraduate degree and I was so intrigued about it, but even like today, there was no training in it, there was no real… There was just, “Here it is, and yeah, intrinsic motivation is really good, so good luck with that.” And all the training was around extrinsic motivation, how to motivate people, and it’s the same today. I get calls and I get emails and stuff, and people always wanna know, can’t we use bonuses and can’t we use this and… You can use those kinds of things. I always think of the phrases that Dr. Deming had, he said, “The destruction has to start somewhere.”
0:01:40.2 DL: And people would ask him about those kinds of things like, yeah, you could do that, but… You’re on the road to destruction. So I’ve been trying to explain the five researched key elements of intrinsic motivation that Deming talked about, and how do you actually change the system, whether that’s a business or a school or a classroom, or whatever it might be. So you have people becoming more intrinsically motivated, so we’ve gone through a couple. So we talked about control or autonomy in the situation, we talked a lot about, in podcast number two, about cooperation, and then podcast number three is support, and now we’re gonna talk about the role of challenge in intrinsic motivation. So, it’s not so easy as just to like flip a switch and say, “Okay, now we’re gonna intrinsically motivate people.” It is a complex thinking that has to take place in management to create an environment where people can be intrinsically motivated, right?
0:02:51.2 AS: Yeah.
0:02:51.9 DL: And usually, if you find people looking like they’re not motivated, Deming talked about probably 94% to 98% of the reason they’re not motivated to come to work, is the work itself, the job. So when we start to talk about challenge, you wanna think about the job itself, is the job that say you’re having a student do… If I tell people, “Memorize these 10 spelling words for Friday,” well, yeah, for some students, that could be really challenging, for others, it’s just sheer boredom of, “Why are we doing this? Where did this come from? There’s no real challenge to it.” So, you can take just about anything that you have that you want people to do…
0:03:39.6 DL: And in fact, Deming was actually a master of this, he went into some of the most mundane manufacturing places in the world where people are just sitting all day long and doing the same darn thing all over and over, thousands of times, and then leaving and then, how do you motivate those people? Well, let’s just pay them more, let’s do this or that or the other thing. And it didn’t work. And the Hawthorne Studies showed that, oh yeah, you could turn the lights off and productivity goes up, or you could turn the lights on, productivity… Or you have music, or you can do all these kinds of things, but what they discovered was that it was the fact that management actually cared. [chuckle] That made the difference, and they were actually doing and trying to do something to improve the working environment is what was really discovered through that. But, Deming was the master of going in and teaching people to use their brains and to begin to improve their own situation. And that’s a challenge. I’m sitting here doing this all day long, the same tedious task all day long, but all of a sudden somebody gives me the keys to improve this situation, make a change here, do something…
0:04:57.2 DL: And that’s where PDSA came from, or originally PDCA was Dr. Shewhart. But Plan-Do-Study-Act, make a plan, do it, study it and act on it, did it work? It could be just that simple of a process. Now if we get together with a few other people and we study the process of what’s happening, and we’re given the authority or the control or autonomy, like we talked about earlier, to actually make a change, ah, well, that’s pretty challenging. That’s pretty interesting. And in my work with education, over and over and over when I go in and start working with people and teaching them this same kind of concept, I hear all the time administrators saying that, “We got dead wood on our staff,” or, “We’ve got people that just don’t care,” or… Well, it’s probably because you taught them to do that, or somebody previously taught them to do that because that’s not normal if people are acting like that, etcetera, and yes, they have to make money, and yes, they have to live, and so they’ll just learn to quit work, but keep the job. [chuckle] And I’ll show up every day and do what I’m supposed to do, but it doesn’t mean I’m gonna put in any extra effort in or any thinking or anything else, so…
0:06:21.0 AS: I can imagine a listener or a viewer listening to this and thinking to themselves, “Yeah, let’s do a challenge. Let’s do a competition.”
0:06:29.1 AS: Not realizing that when you’re talking about challenge, and when talking about intrinsic motivation, it’s not about a challenge to compete for a spelling contest or something, it’s a different type of challenge, so tell us more about what kind of challenges people respond to.
0:06:46.7 DL: Yeah, so some of the ways that you can get challenge into a mundane task or a situation is you wanna think about excitement, how can I bring a level of excitement into this situation? And well, how do you get excitement going? Well, you have to think about the level of difficulty. And so, in neuroscience, there’s actually sort of a learning zone. So, too much challenge, I’m gonna be overwhelmed, I’ll be frustrated, I’ll get the deer in the headlights look, I just can’t do anything. Too little challenge, I got boredom going on. So there’s a learning zone where the challenge has to be just right, and the problem, especially with teachers, is teachers are always trying to assess that with the students that they’re working with, right? They’re trying to set the level of challenge, but what I learned over the last 40 years is, the only person that can really know what is challenging is the individual himself, even like kindergarten, first grade, second grade students know if something is challenging or not, and when you set up a situation where they can sort of choose the level of challenge involved with that, you get a level of excitement that you didn’t get before because the level of difficulty is there.
0:08:20.2 DL: So, I think we talked a little bit in one of the previous podcasts about gaming and video games, and so many education institutes, institutions, they wanna ban gaming and they wanna ban all those kind of stuff, but why are those things so addicting? Why are kids spending so much time on that? Because they’re setting the level of challenge. They’re setting the level of excitement that they can handle, and if they go up too many levels too fast, this game becomes so overwhelming and so difficult that they just can’t cope with it, and so will end up just quitting or backing down a level or two until they sort of master that and move forward. So, being cognizant of that level of difficulty and getting the individual to understand how to set that level of difficulty is where it’s really at. I remember the story of, I think it’s Secretary of State with, I think it was Nixon administration or something… Anyway, there were some…
0:09:26.4 AS: Kissinger.
0:09:30.0 DL: Yes, Kissinger. You got it. Yes. See, there’s a level of challenge for you and you win. [laughter] But, Kissinger wanted some kind of a plan or a military plan or something from one of the generals about something that they were doing or whatever, and gave him a timeline, and so the general came back with a plan, and Kissinger listened patiently to the plan and said, “General, is that the best you can do?” General thought for a while and said, “Well, actually, no. Given the time and resources we had, etcetera, we thought, well, this is the best we can do.” “Well, why don’t you go back and re-look at it and do it again, and see if that’s the best you can do.” Well, the general came back two or three more times and each time Kissinger said, “General, is that really the best you can do?” And finally the general said, “By golly, we worked on this, and I believe this is the best we could do at this point in time.” Kissinger said, “Okay, that’s all I wanted.”
0:10:29.8 AS: I’ll read it.
0:10:30.0 DL: That’s right. He just really wanted to know. So even in schools, kids learn to play the game of learning really quick. How do you get through school? By giving a teacher what they want. You don’t get through school if you’re super innovative… Well, you’ll get through school, but you’re not gonna probably get the As and master stuff if you’re actually being innovative all the time and thinking outside of the box, and I think it was even Einstein got a D in physics or math or something because he kept challenging…
0:11:01.4 AS: Messing around.
0:11:03.0 DL: Yeah, he kept challenging the teacher’s theories all the time. Well, that’s not the way to get through school. You wanna give people the answers they expect, right?
0:11:15.8 AS: Yeah. I have a…
0:11:17.5 DL: That’s the level of challenge that we’re talking about.
0:11:20.3 AS: Right. I have an experience when I was 18, and I went to work in this factory, and it was a plastic molding factory back when plastic molding was done in America, and it was a very mundane job, and I would go crazy all day long waiting for the break and it would just drive me nuts. And I would be thinking about stuff all the time, and the way the company did it is they gave us three months, and at the end of three months, they’d tell us whether they’re gonna keep us or not, and I started the job with a couple of other guys, some of them didn’t survive, but this one guy did survive, and it was the night before we had the decision date, and I said… I asked him… We were talking about it and he asked me, “What do you think?” I said, “Man, I hope they don’t offer me a job ’cause this is just gonna kill me, this is just… There is no challenge in this job.” And I was like…
0:12:13.2 DL: I don’t care how much they pay me.
0:12:14.5 AS: Yeah, exactly. Which I felt like must be the same answer that he was gonna give, but he gave a very different answer. He said, “Oh, I hope I get this job.” And I was like, “Why?” And he said, “Because I just… I like it, I know exactly what to do. I don’t have to bring the job home, I’m not facing all this stress and I can deal with that.” And that was a wake-up call when I later became a supervisor at Pepsi, I was able to understand that different people have different objectives from work and different things they want from it, and some people want a big challenge and some people don’t necessarily. So my question to you is, how do you handle different people that have different willingness or desire to take on challenge?
0:12:57.7 DL: Yeah, and Deming talked about that a lot in his seminars too, and one of the responses I often remember was, he said, “Sometimes people are just not in the right job.” So, maybe there’s another job within the company that would be much more challenging for them, but… ‘Cause everybody has their own expertise that they bring to a situation, whether that’s in a classroom or a job or management or whatever it might be, people have this level of expertise and maybe you’re not just… You’re just not being challenged to use your level of thinking and background and expertise in a new way.
0:13:40.2 AS: But in this case, that guy may not… I don’t know if that would have changed anything ’cause what he was looking for from the job was not necessarily challenge. He wasn’t a bad employee. In fact, he got the job in the next day, and…
0:13:54.3 DL: Well, there’s two different kinds of stresses, right? There’s eustress and there’s distress, right? So eustress is when you are challenged by the job, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah. This is great. This job’s really challenging. I gotta figure this stuff out and I gotta work through this,” or distress like, “These people are trying to kill me,” or, “This is a… This is no fun for me. I don’t like this at all. It’s not something I wanna be doing,” right? So a manager has to be acutely aware of who they’re working with. And part of that happens in the hiring process, are you asking the right questions? And we have the phrase, “Do you have the right people on the bus?” Well, do you actually know what the bus is? What do you really want them to be doing?
0:14:46.3 AS: In fact, the person that was in trouble in that case was me. They probably… Yeah… If I had an education and I had more understanding of the world, I could have said, “Hey, could I try something else?” But I didn’t have that understanding. One of the things I was thinking about that you said earlier that made me think about this situation was also that there’s one thing that that other guy would respond to. And that is identifying errors or mistakes or problems because everybody is frustrated by that and because they gotta repeat their work and they just don’t like that. So you could, I guess, argue that in fact, continuous improvement is something that people will be… Feel the excitement of that challenge about.
0:15:34.9 DL: Yeah, and I’ve encountered that with educators as well. I’ve had teachers just come up and tell me flat out, “I don’t wanna have to think. Just tell me what to do, and I’ll go do it.” The problem with that is all of a sudden you’re faced with, say 30 students, coming from random variation in the system coming in, and all of a sudden you’re challenged with dealing with a level that you’ve never had to deal with before, right? And if you haven’t learned to think and change and adapt and understand that situation, you’re just gonna blame the individuals. “We just need some new kids here,” right? Well, that’s like you get that… You’re in a band and you get feedback from the audience that, “Well, what you’re doing really sucks,” and you’re thinking, “Whoa! I just need a different audience.”
0:16:37.6 AS: That’s why I go to talk to my mom, ’cause she always applauds.
0:16:41.8 DL: Yeah. There you go. So another way we can get challenged is through just novelty. So too much sameness does the opposite of challenge and it puts people into boredom and stuff. I always tell people, “If you don’t believe me, just go to a local church and watch what happens after about 20 minutes of one method, one person talking, everybody just sitting there listening. And then you start to see a whole audience of people nodding their heads in agreement. But really, they’re just trying to keep their heads up, their eyes open,” right? And this is the same thing in a classroom. Past 10 minutes, if you’re doing the same lecture format, the same thing all the time, there’s no novelty there. There’s nothing to look forward to. There’s no challenge, or…
0:17:31.5 DL: I remember I was in a Master’s Degree statistics class and it was a 3-hour class, two times a week at night, and the first class was just all lecture. This guy lectured on statistics and so everybody got it. And I remember it was not a very big class, only about 12 students, but the next class, there were only half as many there and when he got ready to start the class, these people would all get their tape recorders out and just punch all these tape recorders because students all realized that there’s no point in me sitting here if that’s all we’re gonna do is just sit and listen for three hours, right? And the professor didn’t care either. He didn’t care if you’re there or not. So that’s kinda the opposite of challenge.
0:18:22.6 AS: When I see those heads nodding in my classroom, I always basically say, “Everybody come up to the board. I’m gonna show you something,” and then I just do the next lecture with everybody standing.” [chuckle]
0:18:35.1 DL: Yeah, so that’s really good. So how do you get novelty? You can get novelty through music, adding color, and what you just described, adding movement. Change the situation and then watch how the behavior changes instead of leaving the situation alone and expecting a different behavior, which is, insanity kind of a thing. So you’re exactly right. As soon as you see that, you should be changing the situation immediately. Do something different.
0:19:02.5 AS: I’ve been teaching an ethics class, and that’s kind of known for being really sleepy. So what I do is I created a… This is gonna sound kind of funny, a cheat sheet for my ethics class. But basically I teach a little bit and then I tell the students, “Okay, write this down on your cheat sheet.” So they have to do a physical activity and then after that we go back to a little bit of a lecture. And then I say, “Okay, now take a quiz question.” Then they do that and then we look at the scores and see what they understood, and what they didn’t, and basically by doing this type of thing, I’m trying to bring variety, novelty is the word you use. And yeah, and if I didn’t do that in that topic, it’s gonna be all sleepy, sleepyheads.
0:19:48.4 DL: Yeah, sometimes people interpret that as “Oh, alright, we’re going to do an ice breaker.” No, that’s not novelty. Just a lot of people just look at that and just say, “Oh, just skip the icebreaker,” right?
0:20:02.1 AS: Yeah.
0:20:02.2 DL: You have to bring novelty to the learning situation. So I remember when I was in college, I had a class called the Assassination of American Presidents. Fantastic class, but I remember one time we were talking about eyewitness accounts in murder cases and assassinations like that. And while the professor starts to talk about this and he’s going through his points and stuff, probably he could never do it today, but these two people burst into the room with masks over their heads, demanded something from the professor, and actually got one of the students and pulled them out of the classroom with them, etcetera. And then while everybody’s sitting there in panic, the professor says, “Okay, I want you to take out a piece of paper, write down everything that you saw.”
0:20:53.9 DL: 80% of the students in that class swore up and down that these two masked individuals had guns and were holding people hostage. And then they had… He had the mask, people come back in. None of us got it right, because the adrenaline was there and there’s novelty and all this kind of stuff, but it turns out these two guys had bananas in their hands, but we were all sure that they were guns and… But that’s the problem with that, but that was so novel that every time you went to class, there was something, and then by the third class, you’re kind of wary that there’s some trick… Is there some trick to this or not?
0:21:39.5 DL: But still, you’re paying attention, because there’s something going on there. By the way, to get it challenging is to make sure it’s compelling. And Deming talked a lot about the purpose of an organization and the aim, etcetera. But is the work more compelling than just the work itself? You think about… Like building the space shuttle is a good example. Well, I’m not just putting in rivets in the side of this space shuttle. I’m actually creating something that’s a national heritage and we’re doing something that’s never been done before and… The work is compelling in that sense. Also, think about… I think Deming talked one time about most of the work in manufacturing during World War II was being done by women, as men were in the army for the most part, and they worked in teams, they communicated, they had fun in their work, but the work was also compelling. You knew you’re actually building that airplane for your uncle in the South Pacific. And if you had errors in it or problems that that plane wasn’t gonna fly right, you could be… Your family member could be in trouble. So, sometimes that has to be explicit that you have to understand how to make work compelling.
0:23:11.6 AS: Yeah. And I’m gonna wrap it up and then I want to also hear kind of a final word from you about a challenge to the listeners and the viewers to think about how to make things compelling. But let me go through a couple of things that we learned from this discussion. Of course, we’re at part four of five part of intrinsic motivation. And right now, we’re talking about the idea of challenge. And what was interesting that you said from the beginning was that, we don’t get any training on intrinsic motivation, we get all this training on extrinsic motivation. Okay, here’s how you do this and here’s how you do the scores and here’s how you do the competition. And what you also said is that it takes some complex thinking to think about creating an environment of challenge. And you also mentioned that too much challenge for some people could be overwhelming and too little would be boredom and so you’ve got to try to judge that for the students and people involved.
0:24:13.9 AS: And then you talked about also different types of stress and how are people responding to that stress? And I think that… When I think about that, I think about a lot of managers just wanna deliver stress. You didn’t hit your numbers or whatever. And then just to wrap it up, you talked about the idea of how novelty in making things not the same all the time, whether it’s music, color, emotion, whatever that is, can bring some excitement and some challenge. And then I think you wrapped it up with what really brings the most powerful challenge is to understand the aim or the purpose of what you’re doing. And that purpose basically is what can raise your level of challenge. So if there’s anything to add, please add it, and otherwise, let’s give everybody a little challenge to bring challenge into their classroom, starting from after listening to this podcast.
0:25:14.5 DL: Yeah, I’d say just the last thing I would add to that is that, you can always get a level of challenge by having creativity involved in the process. So we’re studying the Pythagorean theorem in mathematics, and so the creativity is you’re to go home and apply the Pythagorean theorem in some way and come back and present it to the rest of the class. Well, that’s a much different challenge than do Problems A through Z, and just come back with the answers. But thinking about introducing a level of creativity into the work is very challenging, so…
0:25:55.2 AS: So what would be a challenge for the listeners that they could bring into their own life, their own classroom, their own workplace?
0:26:05.9 DL: Yeah. It really doesn’t matter what workplace we’re talking about. Once you understand that these are the factors that create intrinsic motivation, you can start looking at your environment and say, “Okay, how could I make this more challenging? Could I add a level of excitement to this that was probably never even there before, a level of novelty? Or could I make this work compelling or add creativity?” I grew up on a farm in Colorado, and I used to sometimes hate that, I’d have to go out with my father to build a fence or something. And one of the first things he would say is, “Okay, so what are we trying to do here?” “Just tell me what to do.” Well, what are we trying to do here, and go through this, and then why do we need to build the fence in this way?” And I’d go, “Well, ’cause its stock gets out and… ” “What happens if stock gets out?” And he was doing with five whys stuff just intuitively, but after a few years, he could just say, “Hey, go out and build this fence ’cause you know how to do it,” and the challenge was much greater of figuring it out on my own and having to work that through. So even something so simple as that can have a level of challenge to it. So think about how you can make just about anything you do, challenging.
0:27:28.0 AS: Great challenge for all of us. What is the purpose of what we’re doing and let’s bring that out. Well David, on behalf of everyone at Deming Institute, I wanna thank you again for your discussion. And for listeners, remember to go to deming.org to continue your journey, and listeners can learn more about David at langfordlearning.com. This is your host Andrew Stotz, and I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Deming, “People are entitled to joy in work.”