Going Beyond Motivation to the Power of Volition

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The most powerful force of human behavior is willpower. When managers learn to activate willpower, or volition, in themselves and others, companies reap the benefits of purposeful action taking and see more projects completed.

But engaging volition isn’t easy. It’s a higher attainment than mere motivation. Motivation is the desire to do something; volition is the absolute commitment to achieving something. To activate their willpower, individuals must pass a mental barrier, a personal Rubicon.1 Our research reveals how successful leaders do that and how they use five simple strategies to help lower-level managers accomplish the same.

Recently, as researchers have begun to investigate what it takes for managers to follow through on ambitious goals, the study of willpower has reemerged from the disfavor into which it fell after World War II.2 The reason for management researchers’ interest is clear: Motivating managers with carrot and stick is overly simplistic. People commit to action for more subtle reasons.

New research into managerial action taking supports the distinction between motivation and volition. (See “About the Research.”) Project managers in the companies studied — some large, such as ConocoPhillips and Lufthansa, and others small, such as Micro Mobility Systems — rarely followed through when the going got rough. Only 10% took purposeful action to implement goals.3 The rest, despite knowing what they needed to do, simply did not do it.4

About the Research »



1. Julius Caesar’s popularity was a threat to the Roman Senate, which ordered him to disband his army, then camped north of a small stream called the Rubicon. An ancient law forbade any general from crossing the Rubicon and entering Italy proper with a standing army. Despite knowing it was treason, Caesar deliberately crossed over on Jan. 11, 49 B.C. Once he had done so, there was no turning back; civil war was inevitable. From that point, Caesar had a single objective: to win the war.

2. Before World War II, Germany was the center of academic research on psychology. Freud and Jung had left a legacy of talented psychologists. Narziss Ach was one of the most eminent. His experiments clearly showed the distinction between motivation (the state of desire) and volition (the state in which motivation is converted to unwavering, resolute commitment). Unfortunately, the language of volition and will became a central tenet of Nazi ideology, although the Nazis based their views not on volition psychology but on philosophy, especially Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. After the war, Ach’s ideas on volition were cast aside along with the discredited ideology. However, Ach’s concept of will was different from the Nazis’. Unlike Schopenhauer, who saw it as distinct from and superior to reason, Ach viewed the engagement of the human will (volition) as the strongest force of human behavior, a force that existed with and beyond reason and was characterized by commitment beyond motivation or the meeting of superficial desires. See N. Ach, “Über den Willensakt und das Temperament: Eine Experimentelle Untersuchung (On the Act of the Will and Temperament: An Experimental Study)” (Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer, 1910).

H. Heckhausen analyzed the use of the words will and volition in “Psychological Abstracts.” He found that in the late 19th century and the early 20th, they were key words of psychological literature, but that there was a rapid downturn starting in 1930. By 1945, the term volition was no longer used and will was gone by 1970. See H. Heckhausen, “Perspektiven der Psychologie des Wollens (Perspectives of a Psychology of the Will),” in “Jenseits des Rubikon: Der Wille in den Humanwissenschaften (Beyond the Rubicon: The Will in Human Sciences),” eds. H. Heckhausen, P.M. Gollwitzer and F.E. Weinert (Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1987): 143–175.

3. H. Bruch and S. Ghoshal, “Beware the Busy Manager,” Harvard Business Review 80 (February 2002): 62–69.

4. See J. Pfeffer and R.I. Sutton, “The Knowing-Doing Gap” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999), 7–28.

5. E.L. Deci with K. Flaste, “Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation” (New York: Putnam, 1995), 44–56; and K.W. Thomas, “Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy and Commitment” (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2000).

6. J. Collins, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t” (New York: HarperBusiness, 2001), 30–33.

7. P.M. Gollwitzer, H. Heckhausen and H. Ratajczak, “From Weighing to Willing: Approaching a Change Decision Through Pre- or Post-decisional Mentation,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 45 (February 1990): 41–65.

8. H. Heckhausen and P.M. Gollwitzer, “Thought Contents and Cognitive Functioning in Motivational Versus Volitional States of Mind,” Motivation and Emotion 11 (June 1987): 101–120.

9. See C. Argyris in “Reasoning, Learning and Action: Individual and Organizational” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982), 102–103.

10. H. Binswanger, “Volition and Cognitive Self-Regulation,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 50 (December 1991): 154–178.

11. J. Kuhl, “Action Control: The Maintenance of Motivational States,” in “Motivation, Intention and Volition,” eds. F. Halisch and J. Kuhl (Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag, 1987), 279–291.

12. H. Leventhal and K.R. Scherer, “The Relationship of Emotion to Cognition: A Functional Approach to a Semantic Controversy,” Cognition and Emotion 1 (March 1987): 3–28; and S.E. Taylor and S.K. Schneider, “Coping and the Simulation of Events,” Social Cognition 7 (1989): 174–194.

13. A. Bandura, “Self-Efficacy Mechanism in Human Agency,” American Psychologist 37 (February 1982): 122–147.

14. P. Koestenbaum and P. Block, “Freedom and Accountability at Work: Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 2001).

15. J. Kuhl, “Volitional Mediators of Cognition Behavior Consistency: Self-Regulatory Processes and Action Versus State Orientation,” in “Action Control: From Cognition to Behavior,” eds. J. Kuhl and J. Beckmann (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1985), 101–128.

16. H. Mintzberg, “The Nature of Managerial Work” (New York: HarperCollins, 1973), 28–35 and 178–179.

17. See P. Senge, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” (New York: Currency/Doubleday, 1990), 141–145.

18. H. Mintzberg, “Managerial Work: Forty Years Later,” in “Executive Behavior,” ed. S. Carlson (Uppsala, Sweden: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1991), 97–120.

19. See T.E. Becker, “Foci and Bases of Commitment: Are They Distinctions Worth Making?” Academy of Management Journal 35 (March 1992): 232–244.

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