From the Docs


Sometimes we don’t feel motivated to do this, that or the other thing. I’m often told by employees, “I’m just not motivated to do this,” or “I’m waiting to feel motivated.” Supervisors sometimes tell me, “I can’t get him/her to do what needs to get done without….” Even as a psychologist, it can be difficult to harness an individual’s motivation for achieving a change that they say they want! Recently, I became aware of the work of Scott Geller, Ph.D. (Virginia Tech), on the topic of self-motivation. I believe the way he addresses this issue is helpful. I want to share his ideas and my interpretation of them with you. We can apply these ideas to our work as employees and supervisors in the Sheriff’s Department.

Dr. Geller builds his model upon four pillars: competence, consequence, choice and community. He believes that when these pillars are in place, motivation and, more specifically, self-motivation occurs. The first of the four pillars is competence. With competence, we are addressing the education and training necessary to accomplish the task. Dr. Geller distinguishes between education and training. Simply put, education is the “knowing” of the task and training is the “doing.” When given a task, each person must be aware of his or her own level of competence. Self-assessment should be an ongoing process for any working individual. It is the way we know we need additional education and training for the tasks we perform. Supervisors must adequately assess a supervisee’s competence. Supervisors must be aware of what their employees can accomplish competently, and provide the necessary education and training for the supervisee to be able to accomplish a task. Failure on the individual employee’s part or the supervisor’s part to ask for or provide the necessary education and training creates a situation that can diminish self-motivation to complete the task.

Consequence is the next pillar. When most people read (or hear) the word “consequence,” they often think of punishment. In this context we’re using the word as it is meant — as an outcome. For self-motivation, Dr. Geller and I agree that an important question must be addressed when facing a task. That question is, in my way of thinking, the “So what?” question. Another way of phrasing this is “How is the completion of the task important?” For an individual employee to develop self-motivation or for a supervisor to nurture self-motivation in a supervisee, the task to be accomplished must have a purpose. It must have meaning. It must clearly fit in with the goals and directions of the organization. If a task fails in this regard, it is akin to asking a person to move a widget from one place to another when the outcome of the move has no impact other than to give the individual something to do. The individual employee or supervisor might not always see the consequence. Because we work in such a large organization, it is easy for almost all of us to lose sight of our consequence. I’m a firm believer that we individually need to be responsible for remaining aware of and reminding ourselves of the way our contributions positively impact the organization. I am also a firm believer that supervisors (aka leaders) need to be able to describe how an individual’s tasks have a positive consequence on the organization. The gear inside the clock gets none of the attention that the clock hands or face receive, but its importance in the process of keeping time is critical.

The third pillar is choice. Choice isn’t about getting to choose what we do or do not do. Choice in this sense is the ability to choose how and when a particular task is done. The freedom to complete a task as it seems appropriate in both its process and timing is important. The freedom to apply education, training, experience, etc., in a way that has a positive effect on the organization goes a long way toward developing self-motivation. The individual employee can often apply his or her own education, training and experience in ways that can be innovative. As individual employees, we should always look for ways to apply what we know to make things better for the organization. Supervisors need to look for ways to be able to give their supervisees this kind of freedom.

The final pillar is community. This last pillar is about interrelatedness. In law enforcement, we hear similar terms that mean the same thing: “team” or “family.” When individuals come together to form teams, or choose a group of people they call family, they do so for many reasons. But there is one overriding reason we do this: We’re made to do it. Fundamentally, human beings are hardwired to make meaningful connections with each other. It fulfills us. It makes us happy and content. It also motivates us. When we feel that we belong, we naturally work toward making our community better. As individual employees and supervisors, we each need to be aware of what we do to contribute to this community, our organization. We must also be aware of how we divide it, accidentally or purposefully. Individuals who feel a part of and integrated into their community will be more self-motivated to support it and make it better.

I think “pillars” are a good metaphor. We all know they work. We all know that having more is generally better, and that removing one can make a structure less stable. In the case of motivation, or more specifically self-motivation, we might be able to generate it with a single pillar, but more is better. As individual employees, we need to look toward putting these pillars in place for ourselves. We have to take responsibility for our self-motivation. As supervisors, we owe it to our supervisees to help them develop these pillars and provide them with the guidance and resources necessary for maintaining them. If we do this, be individually responsible and provide guidance and resources to put the four pillars in place, we will succeed in creating what Dr. Geller refers to as people who “seek success” rather than “avoid failure.”

If you have any question about this topic or want a confidential consultation or a counseling appointment, contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500.

Geller, S., Ph.D. (2013, December 5). The psychology of self-motivation | Scott Geller | TEDx VirginiaTech. Retrieved May 15, 2017, from