When you see the phrase “motivators at work”, what do you think? Most people may think of things like pay or time off from work. These are external motivators. Others may think of personal characteristics such as work ethic or drive for success. These are internal motivators.

In previous posts, I described the lessons in integrity, self-regulation, and deferred gratification that Morgan, my seven-year-old granddaughter, is learning. She is developing these internal motivators through her participation in National Lemonade Day, a national event designed to teach children entrepreneurial skills and help them develop positive character traits.

Last year, she learned the value of integrity when she had to repay us, her grandparents, as investors in her lemonade stand. (See Morgan’s Lemonade Day Project: Integrity as a successful character trait).

So far this year, she is learning the value of self-regulation, deferred gratification, and thrift. After the painful experience of having to repay us last year, she has decided to use her own saved funds (set up through her school and a local credit union) rather than borrowing from us again. (See Morgan’s Lemonade Project, Year Two: Self-Regulation as a successful character trait).

In commenting on my post about Morgan’s lessons in self-regulation and deferred gratification, Marietta Johnson wrote, “Wow, I am truly blown away at Morgan. As her older cousin/aunt, I really had to stop and think about my life in this area.”

It takes a village

Marietta is right. Morgan is learning these lessons at an exceptionally young age. Integrity, self-regulation, and deferred gratification, though, are individual traits. As my coauthor and I explained in Reframing change and I have talked about on this blog, situational factors also matter a great deal. If a person’s environment doesn’t support and provide opportunities for desirable character traits to flourish, the individual may not reach her full potential. This is why programs such as Lemonade Day make such a vital contribution to today’s youth.

For the last few years, talent management has been a hot ticket item within those organizations seeking to find and develop the talent among them. There is a potential downside to this, however. In this society, we tend to laud individual accomplishments as though the individual alone did it all by herself. Organizations may seek to find and train the right talent, while ignoring key situational factors that allow that talent to flourish.

Let’s take Morgan as an example. Certainly Morgan is an amazing child. She alone decides how much money she will deposit in her savings account every other week. It is she who is exercising the self-discipline to save money. She is a “talent,” and is already being identified as such in her school.

Yet even while the grandmother in me was filled with love, admiration, and gratitude as this beautiful child stood in front of me talking about saving her money to support her lemonade stand business, another part of me — the part that relishes learning about human behavior in organizational settings— was reflecting on all the support Morgan has to grow and nourish her incredible spirit and positive character traits:

  • Her living expenses are well taken care of.
  • Beyond these living expenses, she has the opportunity to make money at such a young age.
  • The school and credit union arranged for her to have the savings account.
  • The staff, sponsors, and volunteers of National Lemonade Day created the platform for her to learn about investing, paying back, integrity, and self-regulation.
  • Her parents provided her with caring and wise guidance, chauffeur services, and buying services, and they helped with the set-up.
  • She was treated as a learner rather than as a producer. Emphasis is placed on her growth and development rather than purely on the product (the right kind of lemonade, the right signage and display table, or the amount of money she earns).

Morgan is standing on a sizeable platform of social support: home, school, credit union, and sponsors of Lemonade Day. All involved care about what type of person she turns out to be and whether her innate talents have opportunity to blossom.

Social Support as an External Motivator at Work

Morgan at age 7 is eager and willing to accept help from her “village.” In fact, she regards such help as part of her birthright.

Something happens, however, to many adults. Instead of soliciting support from those who would offer it, they prefer to do it all on their own. This is understandable. Autonomy and mastery are basic human needs according to many theorists, at least in Western societies. People like the feeling of conquering new vistas.

The media within this society reinforce the lone hero approach to success. The role of the Village that helped make the hero possible is often ignored. Case in point — last year, an article featured a set of Black quadruplets who all were admitted to Yale. My hat is off to them! The article describing their achievement reserved one sentence for their parents, “The quads say their parents, who met while in college, always stressed the importance of education.”

That’s it. Teachers and other supporters along the way were not mentioned.

Why the focus on the individual and not the environmental supports that allowed the hero to develop? Some researchers believe that it’s cultural. As one researcher explained it, “Westerners and East Asians differ in their judgments about causality for events, both physical and social. Westerners tend to locate causality in the object, whereas East Asians are more likely to call on the field or context as well.”

In other words, in Western society, people tend to look at the heroes (the object in the foreground). East Asians tend to look at the environment or context in which the hero blossomed. This means that we in this country are predisposed to laud the heroes and not the village that allowed them to emerge and do their thing. The village fades into the background of our awareness or even interest.

What does this mean for the workplace?

In places where heroes are saluted and the workplace context is ignored, managers are likely to miss motivators or other opportunities to develop the Morgans among them. To avoid this pitfall, here is how managers may help promote success of their employees:

  • Pay a decent wage and provide financial rewards beyond that (“her expenses are taken care of” “she has the opportunity to make money at such a young age”).
  • Provide structural supports for success (“the school and credit union arranged for her to have the savings account”).
  • Provide mentorship and managerial support (“Her parents and provided her with caring and wise guidance, chauffeur services, buying services, and they helped with the set-up”).
  • Encourage learning from mistakes (“The emphasis was placed on her growth and development rather than purely on the product.”) In Reframing Change, we refer to this as a learning orientation.

Our awesome Morgan is actively engaged in Lemonade Day. It’s important to her. She is fortunate to be in an environment where her gifts are recognized and nurtured.

For all of us to have our gifts brought forth and recognized, we need to learn to recognize and develop situational contexts and supports that provide the platform on which each of us may grow and flourish.   I have described two other such approaches in previous posts: From Mindless Behavior to Leading Consciously and How to encourage others to change using voluntary behavioral modification techniques. There are many, many more if only we can be attuned to them.

What about you? What motivates you to blossom? Where are you stuck? What external motivators at work — social or managerial support — would help you better self-regulate to achieve your goals and support the organization’s mission?


  1. Reframing Change, Chapters 6 (“Emphasize changing situational factors, not just individuals”) and Chapter 5 (“Adopt a learning orientation”).
  2. Nisbett, R. E., & Masuda, T. (2006). Culture and change blindness. Cognitive Science, 30(2), 381-399.

Filed under: achieving your goalsconscious use of selfhealthy organizationsinitiating changemaking positive changesstrength-based

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