How to motivate employees today

This month, we focus on how to motivate employees in today’s more complex world. It links to my articles about positive psychology and employee engagement. You might also wish to revisit the evolution of business paradigms in creating a values-driven organisation.

Remember Maslow?

You may have studied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at college or university. As a re-cap (see diagram, right) the first level of need is Physiological, then moving up to Safety and so on. Maslow’s theory (which he published in 1943) proposes that our basic needs must be met before higher needs can be met.

We might assume that, as a leader, your efforts to motivate your employees are at the level of Self-Actualisation – whilst this might be true it’s also important to try and identify where each of your employees are in order to provide your best support to them.

I sometimes coach people who want to work on their self-esteem; this comes first and then we can move onto Self-Actualisation. To start with Self-Actualisation without addressing Self-Esteem would be a waste of time and probably make the coachee feel worse.

Motivation theory has developed further, but the basics still hold true and this remains a popular framework.

Carrots or sticks?

In the days when most work consisted of simple, routine, repetitive tasks that were carefully monitored, managers were encouraged to reward wanted behaviours and punish unwanted behaviours – known as the carrot-and-stick approach.

For straightforward tasks that do not require any lateral thinking, rewards and punishments can still provide a small motivational boost and increase productivity.

However, most jobs in the 21st-century are more complicated and demand more creativity. For those, the carrot-and-stick approach doesn’t work any more. In fact, it can lead to:

  • diminished intrinsic motivation (see more on this below)
  • lower performance
  • less creativity
  • ‘crowding out’ of good behaviour
  • unethical behaviour
  • addictions
  • short-term thinking

Source: Daniel Pink

Introducing intrinsic and extrinsic motivation     

In determining how to motivate employees it is helpful to consider whether they are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated by their work:

Intrinsic motivation: Engaging in activities or behaviours because they find them internally rewarding – perhaps because they have special meaning for them, or provide opportunities for personal satisfaction or personal development.

Extrinsic motivation: Engaging in activities or behaviours in order to gain external reward or avoid punishment.

“Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualise our potentials.”
Coon and Mitterer (2010)

5 factors that increase intrinsic motivation

People are more intrinsically motivated when…

  1. Challenge
    They pursue goals that have personal meaning or relate to their self-esteem
    They receive feedback on their performance
    The goal is possible but not guaranteed
  2. Curiosity
    Their attention is grabbed by something in the physical environment (sensory curiosity)
    Something about the activity stimulates them to want to learn more (cognitive curiosity)
  3. Control
    They are able to control themselves and their environment
    They can determine what goals they pursue
  4. Cooperation and competition
    They gain satisfaction from helping others
    They can compare their own performance favourably against others
  5. Recognition
    Their accomplishments are recognised by others

Adapted from: Malone and Lepper

Don’t mix the two or you will get the over-justification effect

Research has shown that offering an external reward for an internally rewarding act can make it less intrinsically rewarding:

“A person’s intrinsic enjoyment of an activity provides sufficient justification for their behaviour. With the addition of extrinsic reinforcement, the person may perceive the task as over-justified and then attempt to understand their true motives (extrinsic versus intrinsic) for engaging in the activity.”
Richard A Griggs, ‘Psychology: A concise introduction’

Self-determination theory – Motivation for 21st Century

Daniel Pink writes about human behaviour, with books that are in the best-seller lists for many weeks. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he proposes that human beings achieve more when they are autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another. He calls this self-determination theory and recommends that organisations focus on three drives to motivate employees today:

1. Autonomy

Let your people have autonomy over four key aspects of their work:

  • When they do it (time)
    • Focus on outputs rather than hours
  • How they do it (technique)
    • Provide initial guidance instead of strict procedures
  • Who they do they do it with (team)
    • Where possible, allow them choice over who they work with
  • What they do (task)
    • Allow regular ‘creative’ days where they can work on activities of their own choice

For one day a week, Google allow their people to work on anything they choose. Chade-meng Tan is a Google engineer who used this time to develop a mindfulness personal development programme with some like-minded colleagues. Initially run on a voluntary basis, the programme has now become so popular that it is publicly available. For more information check out his book Search Inside Yourself.

2. Mastery

Allow employees to become better at something that matters to them.

  • Pink uses the term ‘Goldilocks task’ – a task that is neither overly difficult nor too simple. This allows people to extend themselves and their skills without the risk of getting bored or anxious.
  • Create an environment where mastery is possible through learning and development tasks with clear goals and immediate feedback.

3. Purpose

Take steps to fulfil employees’ natural desire to contribute to a cause that is greater and more enduring than themselves.

  • Employees need to understand and connect to your organisation’s purpose and vision – not just your profit targets, but what you are trying to achieve.
  • Use unifying words such as ‘us’ and ‘we’ so everyone feels part of the greater cause.

For his 18-minute TED talk on this (in the top ten most popular talks), please click the image below:

Alternatively, check out a three-minute animated summary here:

And now for something practical – Obstacles. What gets in your way and what can you do?

Some things get in the way of motivation. Do you recognise any of these habits in yourself?

  • Procrastination
  • Lacking in discipline
  • Lack of focus
  • Love to start things but never finish them
  • Busyness
  • Boredom
  • Laziness
  • Must do versus Want to do

If you do, the chances are you are not motivated by the task or goal! The key to change is to really want it and to understand the benefits to you (often called “What’s in it for me or WIIFM”).  So, start here, and from this place build a concrete action plan – what/how/why/who/when.

Know that making time and space to recharge your batteries and daydream is really healthy. When your eyes glaze over, your brain gets a rest and your most creative ideas emerge, so if you occasionally lose focus, don’t worry – it’s part of the creative process!

In addition, think about how you best work – do you like to be alone or amongst others? Do you need to be able to talk through your plan to stimulate your thinking or get committed to it? Are you a morning person or afternoon or evening? Are you better off working in small chunks and then doing something else, or having an uninterrupted day so you can really get stuck into it?

Have a look back in this newsletter to the 5 factors that increase intrinsic motivation and see how you can incorporate these.

Knowing yourself will help ensure you work in the way that best suits you. Enjoy!


Next month: How to sustain organisational and personal change.

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