How to Inspire Motivation in a Box Checking World

imagesToday pilots are heading off to their dream jobs. They love flying and are excited to be earning money doing something they enjoy. But that excitement won’t last forever. At least for most of the pilots. Soon apathy will set in and instead of becoming progressively better at what they do, they will be content to do the minimum and call it “good”. Why do some people continue to thrive and grow in their profession and others seem to just get by? How can we motivate others and ourselves? The answers may be surprising.

The Stick

Throughout history, the most common means for motivating people has been through the use of discipline or consequences. This practice is common in aviation where regulations are plentiful. The threat of losing a certification and thus a job looms over people’s heads more often than they care to admit. One mistake could cost them a call from the FAA or worse. While it is true that these standards set the boundaries for what is expected, they have done little to motivate people to excel in their profession. Compliance and box checking are the norm but professionalism and innovation are on the decline.

The Carrot

Realizing that regulation is falling short in encouraging greater professionalism, aviation has turned to incentives. Following “best practices” and implementing specific safety strategies promise people the honor of special recognition, the benefit of a prestigious certification, and the monetary value of decreased insurance fees. It’s true that many of the practices that are being promoted have been helpful to the departments which participate. Yet, it is also true that some of the flight departments participating are content to go through the motions,  buy a canned product to comply, and then revert back to using the same practices they have always used. They are then free to  kick back and wait patiently until the next round of incentives is released and then scramble to be the first to sign up.

Science shows that just as a stick and a carrot can be an effective means of coercing a donkey to do as it is told, so it is with people. But it certainly has its limitations. In order to understand those limitations, a comparison needs to be made between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation is when we are motivated by external factors such as rewards or pressures. Mechanical skills, those skills in which there is a clear set of rules and generally one solution, are driven by extrinsic motivation. These left brained activities are therefore improved by the use of punishments and rewards. What this means for the aviation training industry is that regulations and certifications are effective at motivating people to fly planes under normal conditions and to comply with regulations.

Intrinsic Motivation is driven by internal factors and causes us to do things because we feel they are the right thing to do or because they are fun. Cognitive skills such as the ability to make good decisions and judgments, the ability to think creatively, and the motivation to learn and dig deeper for information that is not immediately evident are driven by intrinsic motivation. What science has shown through repeated studies is that these right brained activities are NOT affected by punishments and rewards.  Daniel Pink gives a great TED talk on this subject. What this means for the aviation training industry is that although pilots are being motivated to improve their mechanical skills, very little is being done to improve their cognitive skills.  What is really concerning is that not only are these cognitive traits not affected by the system of rewards and consequences, they are actually being squelched.

Rambo Levin summarizes 7 pitfalls from the use of carrots and sticks.

  1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
  2. They can diminish performance.
  3. They can crush creativity.
  4. They can crowd out good behavior.
  5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.
  6. They can become addictive.
  7. They can foster short-term thinking.

Yep, sounds a lot like what is happening in our industry. So how can we motivate people?

“The solution is not to do more of the wrong things; to entice people with a sweeter carrot or threaten them with a sharper stick,” warns Daniel Pink. He lists three elements that build the foundation for an intrinsically motivating workplace.

  1. Autonomy – the urge to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery – the desire to get better and better at something that matters
  3. Purpose – yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves


People don’t like being told what to do. At the minimum, they would at least like to be involved in any process which impacts them directly. If we want people to be engaged in their training and to get better at what they do, we need to ask for their input and opinions. We need to ask questions  like these:

  • “What is one skill that you would like to learn or improve upon?”
  • “Was this training activity worth your time? Why or why not?”

Regulatory agencies, professional organizations, and even management all have a say in how we are trained. When was the last time anyone asked you to give input on how you train? “Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance, but if you want engagement self-direction works better,” states Daniel Pink. If we aim for compliance, then compliance is what we’ll get. If we want engagement, then we need to involve people at the individualized level.


When we trust people enough to allow them to be a part of the training process, they begin to enjoy learning and to take initiative. Unfortunately, for those of us who begin to regain that passion, the content and course ware that is offered does little to fan the flame. Academia and regulations have driven content for far too long. Filling our heads with facts and asking us to regurgitate it on a quiz does little to inspire. We need content that is applicable to our jobs, easily understood, based on testimonial, and interesting. We do not need experts who beat a topic to death and make us wish we had never bought the resource in the first place.  We need creative resources to peek our interest, encourage us to delve deeper, and inspire mastery .


Once people master a topic, it is only natural for them to want to share that knowledge and skill with others. Perhaps someone becomes the “go to gal” in the flight department when there are weather related issues because that is a topic she enjoys researching. Maybe someone else joins a safety committee in a professional organization to connect with colleagues who have the same passion. Still others mentor a new hire, write a blog post, or comment on a forum. We in the aviation industry need to encourage people to share their knowledge, to give of their time and talents, and to pursue their passions. Trusting people with responsibility, noting their talents and giftings, placing people in leadership positions, and working together as a team to make our flight departments safer and better are all ways in which we can motivate people intrinsically.

So a sweeter carrot and a sharper stick won’t motivate pilots beyond compliance. A good dose of intrinsic motivation is what is needed.

We have learned a lot from people who are passionate about a topic, wise, and willing to share that skill and knowledge so others can benefit. Their motivation has been contagious. Imagine what would happen if even more people are given the autonomy they need to pursue their interests, became intent on mastery and grow purposeful in sharing their knowledge and skill? It might just start a revolution.

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