Declining self-determination is eroding academic motivation

Few academics abused the autonomy they used to have – and fewer still complained about their salary, says Adrian Furnham

June 6, 2022
Businesswoman in office holding a house plant to illustrate Declining self-determination is eroding academic motivation
Source: Getty (edited)

In theory, academics should be among the most professionally satisfied people in the world. They have more autonomy than those in most jobs; they can explore and exploit their particular talents, and they should have no difficulty in believing they are making a real contribution to knowledge.

Yet for many academics, the idea of professional satisfaction seems laughable. How can this be?

In general, people have heard of three psychologists: Freud, Maslow and Herzberg. It was the last who, more than 60 years ago, argued that job satisfaction and dissatisfaction were not two opposite extremes of the same continuum but were, in fact, two separate scales, affected by quite different facets of work.

“Hygiene factors” are characterised as extrinsic components of job design. They include amount of supervision received, working conditions, company policies, salary and relations with co-workers. If these are inadequate, dissatisfaction follows. But, importantly, their presence only prevents what Herzberg certainly didn’t call pissed-offedness. They don’t actively contribute to happiness (although there is a long-standing debate about whether that is completely true).

“Motivators”, on the other hand, are intrinsic to the job itself and do directly contribute to happiness. They include aspects such as achievement, development, responsibility and sense of recognition and respect. Such intrinsic factors have long been acknowledged as important determinants of motivation, especially of the unsupervised variety. Generally, occupational psychologists’ advice to employers has been: get the extrinsics right (enough) and then concentrate on the intrinsics.

So what has gone wrong at universities? First, there has been a decrease in extrinsic factors. Young lawyers or analysts in financial firms now start on a higher salary than university deans earn. And reductions in office space and working conditions, because of expansion and the ludicrous open-plan mentality, makes daily academic life a grind.

What about intrinsics? One way to look at these is via self-determination theory, developed by academic psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan and popularised by science journalist Daniel Pink in his best-selling 2010 book titled Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.

Self-determination theory suggests that human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous and connected to one another. When that drive is “liberated”, people achieve more and live richer lives; they are happy and job-satisfied. Organisations should therefore focus on creating settings that fulfil our innate need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things (“mastery”) and to do better by ourselves and our world.

Regarding the last of these, the theory says that it is important to make sure employees know and understand the organisation’s wider purpose, beyond profits. But what those goals are in university or departmental life is not always made clear and, it seems, increasingly liable to faddishness.

The idea of mastery, meanwhile, is to allow employees to become better at something that matters to them, that they enjoy and that they are already good at. That is, organisations should play to strengths and allow people to get into the flow of tasks that are neither overly difficult nor overly simple.

Part of the problem here is that many academics who are selected and promoted on the basis of their research are still called “lecturers” and expected to do more and more teaching – as well as the tedious administration that increasingly goes with it (including ordering sandwiches for induction days). Just as students have learning difficulties, so lecturers have teaching difficulties. They are required to do more and more of what they are often not good at and don’t enjoy.

In the old days, this was recognised by many wise heads of department, who allowed people to trade lecturing ability for success in getting grants and publishing papers. This wisdom seems to have declined.

But perhaps most of all, it is the curtailing of autonomy – always the enemy of HR – that has caused most dissatisfaction. Self-determination theory says that employees should be provided with autonomy over some (or all) of the four main aspects of work: when, where and how it is done, and who it is done with. Academics can probably still be said to have some control over these factors – but much less than they used to. And, paradoxically, the rise of Zoom has only led to more presenteeism than ever and more and more directives about how to work and with whom. People simply don’t believe me when I talk of academic life in the 1980s and 1990s. Few abused and all thrived on the autonomy they were given, and fewer still complained about their salary.

The theory also says that the fewer the intrinsic motivators, the more people focus on and demand better extrinsics. That suggests there will be more and more strikes and disruptions about pay and conditions; more absenteeism and illness; and increasingly unhappy clients/students.

The managerial attitude today in universities is that if you don’t like it, you know what you can do. And when senior staff do leave, they are usually replaced with younger and cheaper lecturers (often on fixed-term contracts), who are expected to know their place if they want promotion. There are no more Lucky Jims.

But universities would surely get more out of their academics if they just took a little more notice of what “lucky” might actually mean for them.

Adrian Furnham is a very happy and job-satisfied adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School.

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Reader's comments (5)

Agree with almost all of this except the last part. Senior academics can't be replaced with younger, cheaper staff on fixed term contracts because most people completing PhDs where I work are leaving academia as soon as they can so there just aren't any people left to fill the jobs and even when they do they realise how rubbish it is and quit.
Well put. This is management 101. One other theory that might be worth pointing out is Davied Mclellands three needs theory. Most academic would firmly fall into the n-ach category. One key thing to note is n-ach people like challenging but realistic goals. However unreasonable demands of excelling on all fronts that is driven by short termist attitudes and policies of pseudo managers who are in it only for maximising their private payoff at all costs is driving morale and motivation levels down.
David McClelland
Sensible article. The neoliberalised university's authority is very brittle and can be surprisingly easy to stand up to, individually. More academics could reclaim their autonomy on the grounds of their research contributions. I also think academics should take back control of the positions and offices that have been handed over to administrative staff, as often the latter don't understand the needs of research and think academic autonony is trivial rather than essential, they may belittle research and academics, and are indirectly supportive of attempts to make universities operate like factories. Of course, the current government is behind much of this madness, which reflects their own misunderstanding, confusion, and rejection of knowledge and science.... Populism/ nationalism are clearly anti-science, and need to be stood up to in addition.
Great article and excellent comments above. Even though my current department is nowhere near the extremes discussed, I have seen a decline in my job satisfaction over the 30 years of my career. I will be glad to retire in a few years, which is sad because there was a time the I could hardly wait to get into my office.


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