Home-teaching and motivation: A view from an organizational psychologist

guesthome teaching, Mormon 18 Comments

Today’s guest post is by Benjamin O.

I’ve wanted to write this for a long time.  First I need to make a few disclaimers–one, to the best of my knowledge no serious research regarding the motivation of home-teaching pairs has ever been published.  That’s a huge disclaimer.  I’d be happy to be proven wrong.  Second, because of point one, virtually all of what I say here is logic applied to what we do know about motivation to conform to a new situation.  Third, if there’s anything that we know about behavioral psychology, it’s that it is incredibly difficult to make generalizations based on one set of samples and extend it to another.  I could spend a lot of effort proving that point, but I’ll simply cite the fact that when we are developing a selection measure in a workplace it must be validated for the organization in question.  It is impossible to take a stock measure and claim any sort of certainty that it predicts performance exactly the same from one job setting to the next.  Because of this, what I am saying is largely based on the broadest and most well-accepted theories of motivation available.

It is no secret that in many wards, home-teaching is an activity that every elder and high-priest is aware of, but only a select few do with any sort of consistent regularity.  I am personally convinced that it is due to a set of motivational issues that are never properly addressed. As a researcher, I get pretty peeved about many of the definitions of motivation out there.  Personally, I get annoyed when ward members start talks by defining commonly used words, but in this case I am justifying this because the word motivation has so many definitions that are used quite interchangeably, with little regard for what someone really means.

For instance, if someone says, “I’m not feeling motivated today” what they mean is that don’t want to do the things that they are feeling pressure to do.  If I say “she is a really motivated woman”, what I might mean is that she is ambitious, works hard, or is highly conscientious.  The problem with all this is that it lacks precision.  Although psychology is often viewed by chemists, physicists, and biologists as a ‘soft science’, the best researchers in psychology are exceptionally careful with their research methods and definitions.  In that tradition, I am arguing that if we really want to understand the core of a person’s reasons for action, we must be meticulous about definitions.  Thus, I am borrowing heavily from Gary Latham’s definitions for motivation, he, with Ed Locke, being one of the foremost researchers in work motivation.  He rightly points out that the word motivation has Latin roots, being a derivation of movere (for movement).  [Reference: Gary Latham (2007), Work Motivation: History, Theory, Research and Practice, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, p. 3]

With that in mind, I am offering a definition of the word that is simple–the desire to act (or move) in a particular fashion.  Thus we are never unmotivated (except possibly in a few instances of extreme depression)–we always have a desire to act in some fashion, whether or not that action is in keeping with the goals and desires of others or even those held up by the teachings of the gospel as being of utmost importance.

Thus, if we view it that way, the problem with home teaching is not a lack of motivation, but an over-abundance of motivation to things OTHER than home teaching.  Note that this applies equally to virtually any particular task or goal.  It may not be that a person lacks a desire to do something, it’s that they have stronger desires to do other things.

With that in mind, there are two potential solutions (working on a competing priorities model).  First to increase the strength of a person’s desire to do the home-teaching (this is tricky), or second, to reduce both the number and intensity of competing goal-sets.  Either solution is viable in general, but in a specific setting one may be more viable than another.

I should note at this point, that the above is true of virtually any goal-set, gospel related or otherwise.  Temple attendance, payment of tithing, adherence to the Word of Wisdom (which I can no longer abbreviate as WoW–that’s now a time-sink of infinite proportions designed to look like a game), caring for children in a particular manner, completing work-projects, doing homework, and so forth.

This is the strength of Locke & Latham’s model, as presented by Ed Locke in a 1997 article–it’s generic enough that it can be adapted easily to a variety of scenarios, while specific enough to actually be useful.  It’s also testable (falsifiable), which is a litmus test of whether or not an idea can be considered a scientific-theory.  But that’s another point.

This linked article has a great explanation of the theories I’m discussing: http://fisher.osu.edu/~klein_12/CTmodel.pdf [WARNING: PDF]

This article is even better: http://bit.ly/9NfLCA [WARNING: PDF] (this is the source for the above image).

While there is a lot to absorb in the above flowchart, much of which I simply don’t have time to explain, it should be noted that intrinsic to action is the concept of goals.  I want to focus on this for a moment.  Goals are necessary if you want to convince someone to behave in a particular fashion.  I believe this is a lesson taught consistently within the scriptures.  God wants the Israelites to stop worshipping idols with the Egyptians so he gives them goals.  The most effective form of therapy for most psychological malfunctions is based around this concept–cognitive-behavioral therapy includes goal modification.

The single biggest problem in this is that all too often in home-teaching we shy away from goals and we are unable to convince those who are supposed to be doing this relatively simple task to adopt the goal with sufficient force that it becomes more important than other goals (like watching Lost, or playing Xbox 360 [or PS3, or Wii, or some title on their computer–I’m system agnostic], or going to see Iron Man 2, or golfing, or whatever their preferred leisure activity is).

According to this model it comes down to #3: Values & Personality (which of course are fed by needs*–we absolutely value what we perceive we need). For my brother, while he values home-teaching in a service-oriented sense (and is there 100% when a home-teaching family has a specific need with which he can assist), he does not value it from a friendship perspective or a spiritual teaching perspective.  That’s largely rooted in the fact that he’s not an extrovert, but also has a root in his desire (perceived need) for action rather than talk.

In order to convince my brother that monthly visits regardless of a physical need are in order, it becomes necessary to reorder his evaluation of the importance of socialization, as he feels no particular compulsion in this regard (don’t get me wrong–he enjoys conversations with others, but he doesn’t feel a need for it; there’s an obvious analogy here, but I think I’ll refrain as I’d rather not offend).

In my opinion the shortest path to make that value change happen is a spiritual path, which is fine for home-teaching (if you assume that it is indeed a divinely appointed program), but for things in the day to day, this may not be a solution.

Certainly setting clearly defined goals is a step in this process, but it isn’t enough.  There needs to be an emotional attachment (values are, in large part, emotional attachments to a particular outcome), which is what we see in advertising.  Effective ad agencies know this: the goal is to have a person adopt the values that would lead them to value the product sufficiently that it becomes more motivating than competing motivations.  That is, we want to spend our money on their product rather than any other product.  There’s a lot of good research on this–mostly done by economists rather than psychologists (although one Daniel Kahneman is an exception–he won the Nobel Prize in Economics one year, but he’s a psychologist).

This is also why many companies (and drug dealers) give out free samples: they know that because you have a free portion of their product, you will place value on that product (there are a lot of reasons for this–but simply put, we value what we have in our possession more than that which we do not possess).  I think home-teaching is much the same.  In order to convince someone that monthly home-teaching visits have value for those performing them (rather than just those visited), I think the real solution is to get them started on it with a companion which already values it and that is able to engage them on a personal level.  This is a tricky proposition, but it is likely the most effective solution to a difficult problem.

Of course, all this applies just as much to visiting teaching. The question to readers is this: what motivates you to participate in the home teaching program, if anything does?  In the interest of full disclosure, I have recently had a really hard time doing my own home teaching, but I have in the past gone for a number of years without ever missing.  What has your experience been?

*Needs, in this instance, are not referent to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which has limited empirical support as a theory of explained action (motivation, if you will).  It might be useful in providing a general framework for talking about different types of desires or needs, but the data do not show it to predict behavior.  The most fundamental flaw is that Maslow envisioned a hierarchy in which needs at the base of the pyramid (food & shelter) are dealt with prior to pursuing other needs and did not allow for a mechanism which explains under what conditions an individual might pursue a need at the top of the pyramid prior to a more fundamental need (seeking spiritual enlightenment despite undergoing severe poverty and even starvation).  Thus, while an interesting idea or framework for conceptualizing needs, it fails to explain behavior, and is therefore of limited value.

Comments 18

  1. My home teaching experiences have been largely the same as yours: Very reliable in the past, doing fair now but not where I should be.

    Here is the main thing that in my experience improves home teaching more than any other single variable:

    1. Quarterly PPIs with the quorum president or group leader. (I assume this would work with visiting teaching in Relief Society, as well.)

    Other motivators I have seen get results:

    2. Specific quorum lessons every quarter, perhaps monthly, on home teaching. This should be both on the importance of home teaching and on the specifics of how one prepares, teaches a lesson, etc.

    3. Quorum/group leadership calling home teachers during the month to ask if they have completed home teaching, and if not, if they have appointments set. Essentially “reminder” calls.

    4. Positive recognition at Priesthood meetings, even something as simple as a recognition each week: “All those who have completed your home teaching for the month, please stand. Thank you for your efforts, brethren.”

    5. Asking members to give their home teachers a call if they haven’t heard from them by the 15th; that is, put some of the onus for home teaching on those receiving the visit.

    6. For some quorums or groups, seemingly juvenile things like having a party of some sort of home teaching hits 100% (or whatever predetermined level) has worked.

    In doing all this, it should be stressed that the numbers are not the purpose of doing the home teaching, just a measure and a motivator. The purpose is the betterment and care of the Saints.

  2. When I was the VT leader I learned that the church’s system really only tracks those who are not contacted at least once per quarter. As a result, that’s how often I feel pressure to get out there, unless a specific service need or highly motivated partner exist. And honestly, that works very well for me. The other thing that I encounter a lot in my current ward is women who are very busy (like I am) who simply don’t have time or inclination for a visit every month. A quick chat on the phone or at church is fine.

  3. The rules for visiting teaching differ from those for home teaching, just as the purposes of the visits differ. My understanding is that VT exists primarily to give the RS women a sense of society and sisterhood, and secondarily as a check to make sure things are going well and give an avenue of relief when they are not. In this context, a quarterly phone chat might be sufficient. In contrast, HT exists primarily to aid in discharging the inherent Priesthood duty to watch over and care for each member of the Lord’s flock. This requires a personal visit each month unless the member specifically requests otherwise.

  4. I think on the face of it HOme teachers can and do provide a valuable service to the church community. It does depend on how well the particular Ward and Branch is run. In my Branch, everyone was and is pretty territorial, my home-teacher was the former BP and refuse to give up his keys of priesthood that he had at the time. The current BP refuses to deal with it. or the fact of the matter is, is that he is not equipped to deal with this particular person. He is Asian refuses to address the problem because he(home-teacher is older) I wouldn’t mention this except for the fact that in the Asian culture a younger man will not talk back to an older man even if the older person is not in charge.

  5. Benjamin:

    If I may digress for a moment, as a physicist whose daughter just got her Ph D in organizational psychology, I want to assure you that any conclusion that the social sciences are “soft” is merely a way of saying that people and their aggregate organizations are so much more complex than electrons that it is really difficult to make great progress yet, so the conclusions are very subject to change yet despite the rigorous efforts of the researchers.

    People have more variable parameters than any reasonable sample size can hope to control.

  6. The following comments from Elder Bednar might provide us with a different approach as we discuss “motivation” and home “teaching”.

    Elder David A. Bednar
    “A Conversation on Leadership”
    February 24, 2010

    MALE: What have you learned about motivating people beyond their perceived capabilities, what they feel they can accomplish and what they feel that they can deliver? I’m curious in your best motivational techniques.

    ELDER BEDNAR: OK. I’ll only do a little background so that I might have a small amount of credibility on this. In my former life as a professor of business management, I wrote books about motivation and stuff like that. It’s all bogus. There’s no such thing as motivation. Motivation— (laughter) the word motivation stems from a Latin root movere, and what that means is to make move. Well, nothing outside of you makes you move for any sustained period of time. The only thing that will cause you to move is what’s inside.

    So think of President Benson. The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. What the world’s talking about from the outside in is incentives and punishments and rewards and all that stuff. That’s the typical motivation stuff. But the only motivation that matters comes from within and is a function of seeing what we really are. The difference between what we really are and what we ought to be spiritually or at work or anything else, and recognizing that in the strength of the Lord, through His grace and the enabling power of His Atonement, what
    looks so overwhelming that I’ll never get there, I don’t have to do alone, and that He will help me close the gap. And that applies at work as much as it applies at home and at church…..That’s why the spirituality and the capability issue—if we really are coming unto Christ, then our capacity is being enlarged through His Atonement to do things that on our own we could never do. So that to me, that’s the mighty
    change of heart. That’s the change from within that comes through the Atonement and the workings of the Spirit. That’s how I would describe that inner stuff rather than motivation techniques or tricks.


    ELDER BEDNAR: Let me suggest a principle that may be useful in thinking about going forward, how do we use this, and what do we do. The role of a teacher is not to talk. The role of a teacher is to invite learners to act so that they can learn for themselves. And they need to act in accordance with correct principles.

    So if I were in your shoes, I think I would be asking the question: What kind of experiences would best help people learn this leadership pattern? And I would really seek inspiration in relation to that.

    Now let me disclose just a bias or a prejudice, I guess. I think we talk too much because we believe talking and telling is teaching, and it’s not. To teach you first have to observe and listen so that you can discern and then know what to say…The very process of people prayerfully seeking inspiration to learn and to improve—they will be
    taught things by the Holy Ghost that no lecture is every going to dispense. So I guess a guideline would be help facilitate
    the learning of the people who will be influenced by this; don’t just give them a lecture about it.


    Let’s use the following question to frame our discussion about Home Teaching:

    What kind of experiences would best help people learn how be better teachers?
    Your Thoughts?

  7. @#6.

    Actually I tend to agree–motivation is a tricky, often elusive, concept. In one sense Elder Bednar is absolutely correct: motivation only comes from within.

    On the other hand, much of what we have within is a result of what we have experienced from without. To wit–a person may start highly motivated from within, but without external feedback (yes the Holy Ghost, in a gospel discussion would count as external), that motivation will eventually wane. The person may be moved sufficiently to seek out feedback or reinforcement on their own, but without some sort of feedback, eventually the desire to act will diminish.

    All that said, ultimately I do believe that the strongest drive to do home teaching is a result of a testimony that it’s what the Lord wants. The best home teachers, I believe, share that one thing.

  8. @Firetag (#5).

    The huge number of variables is one major problem. I submit that the other major problem is that psychologists are focused on a deterministic model of human behavior, but I believe (firmly) that human behavior is much more similar to a quantum mechanics model (probabilistic). But yeah, sample sizes become an issue, but once you have 100,000+ people in your sample, significance testing becomes pretty much pointless.

    And yes, medical studies, social science studies, and similar stuff OFTEN have 100k+ sample sizes.

  9. You can get those sample sizes when there is money or power in it for someone, unfortunately, be it a university or a drug company. If you could get such a sample size for home teaching, there would no longer be a problem to study. 😀

    I’ll be interested in hearing more about probabilistic models of human behavior.

  10. There are indeed too many variables! But I know something for sure: A person is motivated either when he is chasing something, or something is chasing him. It all boils down (mainly) to goals and past experiences.

  11. “This is also why many companies (and drug dealers) give out free samples” Made me laugh–At my office, drug dealers are what I call pharmaceutical reps–they bring us lots of free drugs, and free lunches. And I feel like a harlot if I eat their food–if they’d quit buying food, etc for every dr office in town, I expect my copay would drop significantly.

    I love to do visiting teaching. But, I also like being a clean outer vessel. So, when my internal motivation is low (values), my personality (1st child-please the “grown-ups”) can kick in, and help me get it done.
    What else helps me having a set time every month. 3rd Friday 9-11am is when it gets done. It’s been that way for a year and this month is the first we’ve missed b/c the youth are out wandering around in the wilderness/trekking this Friday. I’m thinking this month may end up being phone contact month. 🙁

  12. The major issue with (not) doing HT is that we often have a less-than enthusiastic pair of HTs going to visit a family, often inactive, who go through the motions to be polite or because they don’t want to further advertise their inactivity and/or “apostasy”. The process ends up being “make work”, and the goal is the “100% and ‘Gawd’ is happy with us”.

    I like my own HT (he’s a contractor and helped bail me out of some plumbing jams with the house) but I don’t see him every month. I wouldn’t mind if he did, but he’s had his own health issues (electrocution accident last year, nearly killed him!) so I don’t think less of him for it.

    I also get visits from my High Priest GL..he means well, but he’s definitely nosey. I just humor him. Sometimes ya gotta be a good receiver as well as a good giver.

  13. @#8
    Could our lack of motivation in home teaching come from not having a clear vision of the last days and our stewardship to prepare Zion for the Lord’s return? If so, how do we obtain a clearer vision? If a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it (Pres Benson or Pres Packer)then true motivation to home “teach” comes as I REALLY teach my HT families how to build Zion in their home. To bring my point out a little clearer, read Elder Bednar’s comments in the context of improving home teaching.

    ELDER BEDNAR: OK. This will almost sound like a general conference talk, but in the division of all of God’s creations
    there are things to act and things to be acted upon. By virtue of the fact that we are sons and daughters of God
    and we have been blessed with moral agency; with that agency we are to act primarily and not merely be acted upon.

    This book of scripture is an object; it does not move unless I or something else moves it. It has no capacity or power
    of independent action, which is what agency is. You and I can move ourselves. I just don’t know an undergirding
    principle more important than acting and not just sitting and waiting to be acted upon.

    I think all of this is also related to the Lord’s type of leadership. You know, in the secular
    world, leadership is all about achieving strategic goals and being aggressive and assertive and having charisma and
    all that stuff you read in all the management books. But that’s not the Lord’s pattern. And we ought to benefit from
    secular stuff about leadership, but we also ought to discount a fair amount of it because that’s not how it works here.

    Just think about any responsibility you’ve ever had as a leader in the Church. Were you well prepared before you were
    called? No. Did you know what you were doing when you were called? No. So the Lord, by inspiration through those
    who are in authority, calls us to do things that we’ve never done, that we’re not prepared to do, and that we struggle
    with on the front end especially, learning what we’re to do.

    Well, my phrasing for that is what happens as soon as you begin to have any idea of what you’re doing and gain any
    measure of confidence, you’re released and you’re clueless again in some new responsibility.

    And there’s a reason for that. As long as we’re clueless we’re dependent upon heaven. As soon as we think we know
    what we’re doing then we tend to rely more on the arm of the flesh. In the Church every single one of us has been in
    the position where heaven took a chance on us. We didn’t know what to do, we certainly were not experienced, we
    were worthy and willing, but heaven took a chance.

    I have no counsel. I just want to read a scripture. This is one we all know. But I think there are
    elements in this that obtain new eyes to see and new ears to hear because I think this lays out principles related to
    acting and not being acted upon. “Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty, and to act in the office in which he is
    appointed, in all diligence.” So there is to learn the duty, learn the parameters, learn the guidelines. Act in the office
    “in all diligence,” which speaks not only of effort but also of competence.

    The next verse: “He that is slothful shall not be counted worthy to stand, and he that learns not his duty and shows
    himself not approved shall not be counted worthy to stand.” I just think there are vital elements. This is a part of the
    Lord’s pattern for leading and learning and acting and not being acted upon.

    The answer to the question is yes. Of course we would expect that kind of performance. This is
    the Lord’s Church. We are not running an organization; this is the kingdom of God on the earth, and we are preparing
    for the Second Coming of the Savior.

    If we really understand that, the patterns and the processes that we put in place now are imperative in relation to the
    Second Coming. So I don’t think we’re just putting in time, punching the clock, and getting a paycheck. This is the
    most important work that can be done anywhere, any time on the planet.

    In Jacob there’s a verse that says, “For because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us
    concerning our people, what things should happen unto them.”

    I don’t think most of us are very good at helping people understand the outcome, the things that should happen in
    the department, in the organization, and more specifically unto the people.

    So you can really let people act in the office to which they have been called. And I don’t think that’s just a Church
    thing; I think that’s an organizational thing as well. If they understand where we are going—and that takes a lot of
    time, and that takes leaders who are clear about the ultimate objective and the target and the mission, and you spend
    a lot of time helping people to see and understand that. Where there is no vision the people perish. Where there is no
    vision, stuff don’t get done very well.

    But in an organization like this, with people of faith and testimony and good will, if they can see where we want to go,
    then you equip them with correct principles and the confidence that within those principles and parameters you have
    a responsibility to act and not be acted upon, get out of the way.

    Anything that I may have ever known or pursued in my career as a management professor and consultant came from
    the gospel, from the scriptures, and from experiences as a priesthood leader.

    When you take that one verse, “Let every man and woman learn his or her duty and act in the office,” and if you’re
    faithful, if you’re slothful—I mean, it just doesn’t get any clearer or more profound than that. And we have access to
    all of that.

    So this whole notion of spiritual and competence, if I understand this, this is the dispensation of the fullness of times,
    which has as its focus gathering together all things in one in Christ. So those are not separate; those are all things
    gathered together in one, in Christ, and you’ve got to be both faithful and competent.

  14. I loved doing home teaching as a youth when I lived in a very small community with very few members of the church, but after moving to Utah…

  15. As an organizational psychologist, I was intrigued by this post and am enjoying reading the comments. To me, the topic of structure and function is relevant to this discussion. What should be the function be of an activity? What is its purpose? Then the structure follows. Is home teaching done because that is what one is “supposed” to do? Or is it done a certain way because that is the “best” way to do it? Is the “best” way the best for everyone or could some changes make it even better for some? I don’t presume to have the answer to these questions, but they are ones that come to mind.

  16. Psychology of home teaching.Just come and see me,give me a message that will comfort the soul of this suffering family.Uplift me.I love to see you guys.

    I understand when you or your family are sick or really busy.But tell me you’ll miss seeing us,and apologise.And come next month,if you can.

    It’s hard for me to see why this is complicated.

  17. Maybe to make someone a good home teacher, he himself needs a good home teacher to model after.

    I hate home teaching, even though most of my HT families get upset when I am reassigned. I do it with about 90% reliability, but I hate it. (I’m not an extrovert.) But, I had a good home teacher when I was a teen and I had a good home teaching companion. My first companion was an older gentleman (one of his sons taught at the high school) and we went at 5 p.m. on the first Saturday of every month, rain or shine. In October and April that meant going between the 2-4 p.m. conference session and the 7-9 p.m. priesthood session. (The times were changed to 6-8 some years later — early 80s?)

    I think part of my motivation is guilt — not to the priesthood leader who is going to call me about it, but to the families themselves. I have trouble missing one month then coming back the next like nothing happened.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *