One of the biggest questions that leaders face is how to get their employees to come to work each day motivated. This might sounds like an unrealistic ideal, and even the best leader can’t increase our enthusiasm if a job simply isn’t a good fit with our inherent strengths and values. But many leaders tend to overlook the aspects of employee motivation that may be within their control.

An important distinction to make is between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic factors motivate us to do something because we want to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Salary is an extrinsic motivator. Intrinsic factors motivate us to do something because it is personally rewarding, regardless of any external drivers. I chose a career as an executive coach because I enjoy supporting people in their continued development. Many workplaces tend to only think in terms of extrinsic and not intrinsic motivators. But leaders can have a profound influence on the motivation levels of their employees by realizing that what motivates people goes beyond simply pay and benefits.

Two people that provide insight to motivation are Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (also summarized in a TED talk), and Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, author, and speaker in the TED talk, What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work? Pink’s book cites numerous research-based studies to conclude that when people are asked to address complex tasks – the kind that take analysis, creativity, and innovation – the biggest motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In fact, he concludes that when rewards are treated as the primary motivator, this can actually backfire. Rewards motivate people to get rewards – so when the rewards go away, motivation goes with it.

Dan Ariely conducted a separate but related study that showed that when our efforts are regarded, in remarkably small ways, we actually require less reward. Participants were asked to find pairs on a sheet of random letters, and they were paid for each sheet submitted. When the work was turned in, it was either: (1) visually scanned, verbally acknowledged, and put in a pile, (2) not looked at but put in a pile, or (3) shredded immediately in front of the participant. People whose work was shredded wanted twice as much payment as those whose work was acknowledged. People in the second group wanted almost as much. Ariely says, “The good news is that adding motivation doesn’t seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy.”

What are some specific ways you can take these insights and translate them to leadership changes that support employee motivation?

  • Don’t micromanage. Provide clarity on what needs to be accomplished but give your employees the freedom to decide how to accomplish the work.
  • Provide opportunities for ongoing workplace challenges and learning – tasking that requires new skills, and other professional development.
  • Make sure your employees understand the broader impact of their work. Help them see how their activities support the bigger picture of organization mission, values, and goals.
  • Give your employees appreciative feedback about their work. Instead of just saying “Thank you,” be specific about what they did well and the positive effects of their effort.

Workplace rewards traditionally focus on a compensation package. But when leaders recognize that motivation is complex, and take these factors into account, they can make efforts to create a workplace that is more likely to have (and retain) satisfied, productive, engaged employees.

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