‘Our research shows benevolence makes people happy’

Richard Ryan has spent a lot of time researching motivation: understanding why people do what they do, why they choose certain courses of action and why they reject others. A clinical psychologist, Ryan jointly developed the self-determination theory of motivation which he says is applicable in the workplace, in education, in healthcare systems and even in sports organisations.

“The old motivation theories are all carrot and stick, they are really about incentives and avoiding punishments,” he says. “We focus on the reasons that inherently satisfy people at work. Most of us want some purpose in our work, we want to feel we’re effectively doing something, we want to experience some collegiality.”

Ryan completed his doctoral degree at the University of Rochester in the US, where he then taught for more than 30 years before relocating to Australia in 2014. Now a professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney, he has published widely on motivation.

The pandemic and the upheaval of lockdowns and remote working focused attention on worker satisfaction and how to best keep remote workers feeling they are connected to their organisations, Ryan says. His research has focused on various topics, such as how best to listen as a manager, how to best respond to input from staff, and on the sorts of recognition that are most appreciated by employees.

The pandemic has given people a sense that there are alternatives to the old way of doing things, he says, particularly in terms of working from home. “So we really look at people’s sense of autonomy, their sense of competence, sense of relatedness in a classroom or workplace; what are the conditions in the way of that, what are the conditions that foster that,” he says. “That’s really what’s important to people’s sustained work.”

Ryan and his colleagues have also been engaged in understanding the effectiveness of wider messaging during and after the pandemic and why some messaging fails with some groups: why some people chose not to get Covid vaccinations, why they refused to wear a mask at various times, and what fostered the various conspiracy theories which came from vaccination and mask edicts.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so there’s an even bigger burden on policy-makers and governments to know how to message and know how to say something that will inspire people to listen, rather than paying attention to fringe conspiracy theories,” he says.

He has found that threats simply don’t work; but people who resist a shove might be amenable to a nudge. “The messaging has to be trustworthy and informative,” he adds, “because if people feel like they’re not getting the straight scoop, then they’re not going to follow.”

Ryan’s research has found that people are motivated by self-interest far less than is commonly thought, and care for others is a powerful driver. There are always a few who refuse and they tend to get all the publicity, he says. “Our research has shown benevolence makes people happy,” he adds. “It provides a larger sense of purpose and a way of feeling effective. It’s very motivating when you do something you feel helps others.”

The Australian