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Motivational Expert Studies How Psychology Informs Effective Communication


Paul Baard, Ph.D., is a motivational psychologist.
Photo by Chris Taggart

A little-known fact in corporate America, according to Paul Baard, Ph.D., clinical associate professor of communication and media management, is that a major study shows that managers spend 62 percent of their time addressing interpersonal conflicts.

“We all hear about violence in the workplace,” said Baard, a motivational psychologist and consultant. “But most office conflicts are at a lower level. For example, an unreturned e-mail can be interpreted as disrespect, prompting resentment and perhaps reciprocal treatment, or a complaint to a supervisor. It sounds trite, but it wastes time and it undermines the team.”

The former senior executive at the the Nielsen television ratings company refers to this dynamic as “psychological fusion.” It’s the reason, he said, why some minuscule incident can consume a person and get blown out of proportion. Baard cited “road rage,” which he has researched, as another example. He further mentioned the anxiety attached to annual performance reviews in companies.

“Part of the reason that people experience high anxiety is because they are not sufficiently self-defined,” said Baard, whose fusion concept refers to how the actions and attitudes of others can “cause one to feel.” “The failure of employees [or drivers, in cases of road rage]to differentiate themselves from the perceived attitudes of others can create overwhelming stress.”

In the business world, how does a manager deal with these issues? Baard is currently at work with Fordham doctoral students on researching effective methods of motivating people to do their best.

A key to good management, according to Baard, is helping employees become self-motivated. Baard said that the Self-Determination Theory (popularly known as SDT) is one of the leading theories of motivation in the world. SDT identifies the means to create a motivating environment and therefore reduce stress.

SDT asserts that humans have three innate, psychological needs. One is the need for personal autonomy. “In a workplace context, employees want a voice in how their work gets done and a sense of not being micro-managed at their jobs,” he said. “They like to feel as if they initiate their own actions.” Putting up a suggestion box and inviting workers’ input are ways to meet this need.

Secondly, employees have a natural desire to feel competent and that they are growing at their jobs. “Employees want to see meaning attached to their efforts, as well as an expansion of their knowledge and skills,” he added. “When this need is frustrated, people either leave to find new challenges, or they stay and do the bare minimum.”

Finally, creating the feeling of a “team” among employees is critical to making them feel cared about. STD refers to this as the need for “relatedness,” the powerful desire to feel you are in a mutually reliant relationship. Making one’s home or cell phone available to employees, Baard said, is one way in which a manager can let employees know he or she cares.

Baard co-authored an article with the two University of Rochester scholars who developed SDT, describing the results of his research with more than 500 employees of a Wall Street firm. The findings revealed how managers’ communication styles and behaviors had an impact on subordinates’ motivation. His results showed that the degree to which managers met these three needs correlated positively with performance and vitality, which corresponds with intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation, Baard explained, is the best kind of motivation as it fosters the greatest creativity and output. It also shows a strong correlation to overall health, in that employees show fewer incidences of psychosomatic-caused illnesses.

Not meeting these needs can eventually lead to the absence of purposeful activity, or amotivation.

“These effects are measurable,” Baard said. “Companies would be well-served to meet these needs.”

Intrinsic Motivation Applies to Sports, Too
Baard also serves as a sports psychologist at Fordham, having worked at the professional level with an area team, a major sports league and individual athletes. This past Labor Day, Fordham men’s head basketball coach Dereck Whittenburg invited Baard to accompany the team on its first international tour. Baard’s job was to help keep anxiety at a “purposeful level,” among team members.

“A coach doesn’t want zero anxiety,” Baard said. “That would mean his players would walk around the court going, ‘Who are we playing tonight?’ And you don’t want maximal anxiety either; those are the guys who become physically ill or are jittery at the free throw line.”

What Baard always strives for with athletes is “optimal anxiety.”

“I want the player who is thinking, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’ You can see it in his eyes; he’s excited. He wants to go out there and win.” In other words, he is intrinsically motivated.

One technique that Baard teaches to both coaches and players is simple: Smile.

“Whether you are up 10 or down 15,” he said, “smile. This is one way you can help create an environment where players feel ‘in flow.’”

In athletes, Baard strives to develop self-definition. He cautions that players who consider themselves “stars” as defined by their fan base can fall victim to psychological fusion and succumb to what he calls “dumb fights” with fans or others and find themselves banned from games. “Criticism [from fans]can become psychologically life-threatening to them,” he said.

Most importantly, perhaps, Baard teaches players that their lives are not on the line.

“If a player thinks he needs to win,” he said, “he’s mistaken. He’s factually incorrect. It’s all a posture of the mind.”

“I teach players and teams to go out onto the court and out-want their opponents,” he says. “It’s a psychological posture that works. When people are in the wanting mode, that’s when the best performance comes out—in the office or on the court.

“And it goes for the classroom as well.”

– Janet Sassi


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