Maintaining energy and drive in difficult times

Lynne Cooper

· coaching and communication

In these challenging times how do we stay energised and enthused about work, job searches, education or much else?   There’s much talk of how pleased people will be to see the end of 2020, yet in truth, come January 1st, nothing much will have changed.  Of course there’s some optimism that vaccines will open up more opportunities and choices during 2021, but until then, our own motivation – and that of others – may need some attention.

So where does motivation come from?  Psychologists* claim that human behaviour is driven by one of two types of motivation:

Extrinsic – from the outside:  a positive response to rewards, recognition and observed successes, such as a promotion, winning a sports match, gaining a qualification, or generated by fear - of criticism, reprimand, disdain, status loss,  unemployment and more.

Intrinsic –self-determined, from within, including factors such as a sense of personal achievement, enjoyment and growth.

Extrinsic motivation has been impacted by the pandemic, with fear of loss of livelihoods, homes, health and lives affecting so many, plus reduced opportunities for achievement through education, artistic performance, sports etc.

Intrinisic motivation has also been distinctly affected, particularly in the workplace. Self-determination theory* says that there are three main aspects of intrinsic motivation: competence, autonomy and connection (relatedness).


The ability to learn and develop skills, master new experiences and overcome challenges is inherent in the human make-up – people move towards growth.  We saw this manifested in  enforced lockdowns, with those  learning new skills, tackling creative projects, cooking endeavours and more.  For people in work, however, learning opportunities have been limited, often focused on short term objectives such as new technologies and establishing new ways to deliver services. Formal training in many competencies, such as leadership,  has been significantly reduced.  Opportunities to learn on the job through observing and listening to others, particularly for those at the start of their careers or in new jobs, have been curtailed.


We need a sense of some control over our goals and behaviours, that we can make choices, take actions and have some independence to stay focussed and motivated. This year has seen governments and employers reducing people’s choices in how they live and work. By contrast, some employees are benefiting from increased trust and added flexibility to deliver outcomes and meet targets whilst working from home, increasing their autonomy, whilst others experience even more command and control from line managers who feel ill-equipped to engage and lead remotely.


The human need to belong - to feel part of something and to relate to others - is the third intrinsic motivation, wonderfully illustrated by the desire to join neighbours to salute health services in many countries during the first half of this year. On the other hand, a lack of close connection, within families, communities and workplaces, has taken its toll.  As motivation has declined, so has the energy to connect remotely with people fatigued by video-conferencing and increasingly frustrated by the lack of in person connection.

What needs to happen?

As we embrace the new year ahead, here are some tips for lifting energy, enthusiasm and engagement at work:

For individuals

  • Challenge your assumptions around how much autonomy you have at work.
  • Take solutions, not problems, to your line manager or colleagues.
  • Consider what you reallywant for your career, lifestyle and happiness and make some plans.
  • Ask for training, mentoring or coaching.
  • Identify free learning resources online.
  • Make short connections with others using good old-fashioned telephone, rather than scheduled long screen-to-screen calls.

For leaders

  • Have frequent conversations with direct reports about their development needs and desires.
  • Adopt a coaching mindset and approach to support team members’ developing competence and autonomy.
  • Invest in learning opportunities for yourself and your teams.
  • Develop peer mentoring schemes.
  • Measure performance on outputs not inputs.
  • Check in often with team members.Listen.
  • Give and solicit feedback.
  • Arrange socially distanced meetings and connections where possible


* Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory: