Motivation in the Workplace: What Drives Us?

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Employee engagement has to be the #1 HR buzz phrase for this decade. How do we get employees to plug in and turn on at work? How do we foster the level of emotional and mental connection with the company and the job that allows them to put forward their best efforts, and love doing it?

In their efforts to compete and achieve sustainable growth, employers offer everything from foosball to catered lunches and unlimited vacation to keep employees happy. Sometimes it works and people shine and companies win awards for being great places to work. But sometimes it doesn’t and employers end up playing a perpetual game of “what have you done for me lately?”

Human Motivation is Complicated

The problem with human motivation is that it’s complicated. We’re likely all familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as the basis of human motivation. People will strive to meet these needs, starting with the most fundamental physiological needs (food, shelter, etc.) and moving toward the highest, self-actualization needs as each previous level is satisfied. So, depending on where employees fit on this continuum, they will be more or less motivated by the efforts of their employer.

The good news is that this framework offers an employer some definite ideas about how to keep employees motivated—starting with compensation that’s adequate to meet physiological and safety needs. In fact, if employers based all of their employee motivation efforts on Maslow’s model, they would likely succeed more often than not. After all, compensating competitively; creating a work environment that allows employees to feel accepted and part of a community; supporting a culture of mutual respect; and offering challenging work with enough autonomy to let creativity flourish—is all good!

Unfortunately, the world of work has traditionally seen everything beyond competitive compensation and incentives as the “warm and fuzzy stuff”: hard to maintain, hard to monitor and even harder to measure. So many managers rely instead on the positive and negative reinforcement theories developed by B.F Skinner, that built on  earlier work by Pavlov and J.B Watson. These managers motivate employees by giving rewards to high performers; administering discipline to under-performers and (in many cases), doing little or nothing with everyone else.

Behaviorism, with its reliance on positive and negative reinforcement, is easy to understand, implement and monitor, so it persists in the workplace. But why does this matter? Punishment has long been viewed with some skepticism as to its effectiveness, but rewards and incentives—they make the world of work go around, don’t they? Apparently not.  In fact, the carrot and stick approach to management represents a very real problem in today’s work environment.

Rewards Kill Creativity

Research now shows that rewards actually reduce intrinsic motivation, undermine risk taking and kill creativity.  This realization, when it first emerged, so challenged the status quo that self-determination theory was initially dismissed or ignored by management theorists and practitioners alike. More recently, with the increasing complexity of today’s work environment and the different perspectives of a new generation of employees, this new slant on motivation has finally come into its own.

Dan Pink, in his book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, ties together the work and research of H. Harlow, E.L. Deci, and A. Kohn in a fascinating exploration of intrinsic motivation and how it can be derailed by employers’ efforts to motivate extrinsically through reward and punishment. Pink also touches on “flow” as defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  and considers how it can impact motivation. When employers create the conditions that allow intrinsic motivation to flourish and encourage employees tap into a state of flow, greater work satisfaction and exceptional results are achieved.

The Truth about Motivation

People will always strive to meet their basic physical needs first—that is, they are motivated to achieve the foundational level of Maslow’s pyramid. After that, if work is routine and transactional, the offer of a reward for performance can also motivate and lead to improved performance; just as the possibility of discipline can often deter people from behaving in undesired ways. This type of extrinsic motivation has its place, but can backfire if used in the wrong circumstances. When it comes to the kind of creative, complex and continually evolving work that many of today’s jobs require intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic motivation. When people are intrinsically motivated, they operate from a place of personal satisfaction and a sense of purpose. Intrinsic motivation resides among the higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy that reflect people’s emotional and psychological needs. In terms of Dan Pink’s theory and self-determination theory (SDT) on which it’s based, to be intrinsically motivated people need three things:

  1. Autonomy: the ability to direct their own lives, have choice and some degree of control
  2. Mastery: the need to learn and create new things and the opportunity to become better at something that matters to them
  3. Purpose: an understanding of the meaning behind what they do and a sense that they are contributing to something greater and more lasting than themselves

There is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to motivating and engaging employees. What we do know is that simply relying on carrots and sticks doesn’t work. The more we incorporate the principles of self-determination and address the higher level needs of employees, the greater our chances of tapping into their passion and purpose.


Subscribe to the TribeHR Blog for more on what’s relevant to HR today.

Engage and nurture your talent with TribeHR’s uniquely social talent management suite. Start your free trial today.

3 Tips to Make Employee Engagement More Social

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Employee Engagement is Intrinsically Social We know that employee engagement is both important and also woefully low in most organizations. Despite all the resources put into traditional engagement initiatives, the needle still isn’t moving. Why? The problem with traditional engagement efforts is that it is viewed as the domain of managers. Meaning, let’s give data and leadership training to front-line managers, and they’ll do a better job of engaging their workers. That’s a good start, but it doesn’t tap into the most powerful force for engagement: the workers themselves. According …

Presenteeism: the One Thing Worse than Absenteeism

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Wikimedia Commons, Public domain Absenteeism occurs when an employee misses work intentionally, creating a habit of taking unscheduled time-off for a variety of reasons, legitimate and otherwise. Common Causes of Absenteeism Bullying and harassment – Employees who are bullied or harassed by coworkers and/or bosses are more likely to call in sick to avoid the situation. Burnout, stress and low morale – Heavy workloads, stressful meetings/presentations and feelings of being unappreciated can cause employees to avoid going into work. Personal stress (outside of work) can lead to absenteeism. Childcare and eldercare – Employees may be forced to miss …

People Remember What They Feel

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Last week, someone shared a very powerful quote with me. It was attributed to Maya Angelou, American author and poet. “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Although deceptively simple, Angelou’s words have the ring of truth about them. As a quick test, think about these questions: What do you find when you flip through your mental scrapbook of memories? Who and what do you remember in your …

Holiday Office Party Etiquette (or how not to go down in flames!)

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Flickr/Daniel Stockman The time for year-end holiday celebrations has arrived. Having heard of (and witnessed) a number of employee flameouts at past festivities, I thought this would be a good time to restate the fundamentals of office party etiquette.  The company holiday party is a time to celebrate, but it’s also a business function and it pays to keep that in mind. Here are a few tips for making sure that this year’s holiday party brings only good things your way. Drink alcohol in moderation (or not at all if you’re driving). …

Thanksgiving in the Workplace

Posted on by Leave a Comment

In the United States, Thanksgiving is not just another day off. For many, it’s their most anticipated holiday; the time of year they head home to connect with family and friends, wherever home may be. Time Off and Peak Travel Historically, many companies have given employees a “four day weekend” for Thanksgiving, with both the Thursday and Friday being paid days off. This practice is generally reflected in the public and institutional sectors as well. Some employees further extend this extra-long weekend with vacation entitlements (and the occasional convenient sick day). Apparently, most employees use this …

How Can We Engage Employees When We Won’t Talk to Them?

Posted on by Leave a Comment

The simple answer—we can’t! Ceridian recently released their Pulse of Talent Survey. The survey deals with rewards, feedback, and motivation, with regard to generational differences in the workplace. In the category of Communication and Expectations, the survey found that “performance feedback is critical to ensuring job satisfaction and employee retention”. Unfortunately, the survey also revealed that, in 2012, only 54% of respondents had a formal meeting with their boss to discuss their job performance. Furthermore, only 10% of the sample was promoted in 2012. Of those promoted, 72% were not told why. Overall, the survey found that only 1 …

How Much Employee Engagement Can You Expect?

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Committed to company goals? Today’s holy grail of management and business performance is employee engagement.  Everyone is being told to focus on forging the emotional connection and commitment to mission that results in high-performing employees and exceptional shareholder returns. Companies who have achieved a high level of employee engagement are reaping the rewards in tangible, bottom-line results. But how much engagement can we realistically expect from employees? The answer to that question is elusive and depends on a number of factors: How committed is your leadership to employee engagement? Do your employees feel heard and respected? How …

Employee Engagement or Employee Happiness?

Posted on by Leave a Comment

Employee engagement is on everyone’s mind as the Gallup’s recently released study, the State of the American Workplace demonstrates that 70% of the American workforce is disengaged.  The Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study found similar results globally, even in the face of increased efforts to cultivate employee engagement in recent years. In spite of its apparent elusiveness, employee engagement is worth pursuing. Gallup estimated that “active disengagement costs the U.S. $450 billion to $550 billion per year”. The study also concluded: “Organizations with an average of 9.3 engaged employees for every actively disengaged employee in 201 …

Employee Engagement and The Platinum Rule

Posted on by Leave a Comment

We’ve all heard of the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. When it comes to employee engagement; however, the Golden Rule isn’t good enough. We need to step up and focus on the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them”. In other words, treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated. This is probably one of the most important (and least understood!) factors in employee recognition, motivation, and ultimately, engagement. …

Next Page

Experience TribeHR for Yourself
Contact us to schedule a demo of TribeHR.

Book A Demo
The Latest from Workplace Tribes
Achieving Fair Pay Regardless of Gender August 29, 2014
Winter is Coming August 27, 2014
Hiring Without Bias is Harder Than You Think August 25, 2014
10 Things You Should Never Do in a PowerPoint Presentation August 22, 2014
Two Approaches to Calculating Bonuses August 20, 2014
Creating a Path for Growth August 18, 2014
3 Things HR Can Learn from Great Customer Service August 15, 2014
Brain Health and Workplace Performance August 13, 2014
Are Leadership Skills Transferable? August 11, 2014
Presentation Skills - Using the Tools of the Speakers Trade August 08, 2014