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The Effect of the Safety Space on Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is often referred to as a construct reflecting the natural human propensity to learn. Learning is successful when the desire to learn meets the proper medium in the form of new experiences available to the individual. Since safety space is an artificially constructed environment, the amount of learning that individuals receive is often limited by the available information, rather than by the desire to explore. Parents, for instance, can only share the knowledge, experiences, skills and perspectives that they have developed themselves—the rest is introduced into the space with the help of external media, such as TV or the Internet, or it is inhibited with mental programming, and cultural norms that undermine the value of the experiences. The diversity of intentionally introduced media, however, is the function of the principals' perspectives and such cannot be qualitatively different from what they already bring into the space—unless principals keep learning themselves. This creates a vacuum of qualitatively new experiences, forcing the substitution of these experiences with mental programs.

Similarly, in organizations, the perspectives of the employees are only as good as the perspective of the management. If an employee develops a larger perspective than that of management, the Holy Grail of organization—its structure—is challenged. In these circumstances the employee is left with one of two choices: be genuine with oneself and leave, or stay, give up and integrate. The latter means an acceptance of mental programming and a conscious waiver of the right to learn to management, who may or may not use it for the benefit of the organization.

Thus, in a safety space, only management—acting as principal—can truly explore the outside world of reality and bring in new experiences and information. Individuals functioning inside the space are mainly digesting what the management has already discovered. For the organization this means that the propensity of organization learning is the function of the learning ability of the management, which puts at risk the evolution of the organization. For employees this means that:

  • Experiences are replaced with mental programs. While a program is a construct of the mind, experience is a set of memories of both the mind and the body, with an outcome in the form of a statement, which looks exactly like an 'if-then' condition of a mental program. Moreover, a dense emotional connotation of the program makes it undistinguishable for the owner's mind. The program is true not because of the inputs and outputs of a specific precedent, but because of the fear and guilt associated with learning. Not surprisingly, experience is much more productive, as it comes with additional multi-dimensional data that helps derive new insight, explore the assumptions, check their validity and applicability to specific situations. Experiences allow individuals to exhibit more mindfulness in the application of the 'if-then' conditions, which results in higher quality decisions and actions.
  • Individuals are oblivious to their full potential. Mental models that individuals develop are reflections of their safety spaces—with a limited set of possible experiences, and a persistent reliance on the status quo. There is no desire to explore any of the outside experiences, since there is no awareness of how it feels to fulfill the underlying desires. Dependents neither identify themselves inside the safety space nor have the urge to explore the learning space (see Figure 9.3). Although the information about these new experiences may be available conceptually, the mind will attach no value to them, and no action will be triggered. Insensibility to the array of possibility is a constraint on personal growth. For example, an individual with no exposure to people with higher education will most likely consider it a waste of time: there will be no meaning assigned to higher education in his/her safety space. In order to desire it, one needs to experience the outcome. A university professor, on the other hand, is likely to instill a desire for education in his kids—by immersing them into university-like experiences through books, conversations, and people that enter their safety space.
  • Necessary skills to navigate beyond the boundaries are not developed. To do so, an individual would need to accept the volatility of the real world and develop the skills needed to deal with it—open mind, open heart, and open will. Instead, what are encouraged are behaviors that tend to reinforce the desire to stay in the safety space. These behaviors include but are not limited to the fear of the unknown, desire to control the immediate environment, and the need to be on the safe side in the future. An individual that has surrendered to the mindset of his controllers, when exposed to the outside world will most likely collect enough frustration to reinforce his/her fear of the unknown. This vicious circle creates a force that maintains the boundaries of the safety space.

As we can see, safety space limits the spectrum of learning experiences and activities that individuals can choose to engage in at will. An illustration of the entire experience space is depicted in Figure 9.3. Exit into learning space is a significant source of the potential energy that is latent in individuals, and in some cases never explored in their lifespan.

Full experience space

Figure 9.3 Full experience space

An individual that transforms a desire to learn into knowledge, is energized by both the process, described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi[1] as the state of flow, and by the final transformation, given the qualitative shift in the individual's perspective. Unfortunately, for the reasons described above, this learning cycle rarely gets completed, and thus the energy of intent is wasted, and the desire to acquire new knowledge and repeat the experience is diminishing, and can be completely offset by fear and the need for safety in an adult.

  • [1] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). 'Finding flow.' Psychology Today. Available at: (accessed: May 20, 2014).
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