All motivation comes from within, whether it is triggered by rewards or endeavors that enhance one’s self-image or simply comes from intrinsically-motivating activities that we engage in for no reward other than the enjoyment these activities bring us.
Realizing this makes the topic of employee motivation quite daunting for people managers, leaders, and human resources professionals alike.
But organizations that provide their members with meaningful, engaging work not only contribute to the growth of their bottom line but also create a sense of vitality and fulfillment that echoes across their organizational cultures and their employees’ personal lives.
An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.
In the context of work, an understanding of motivation can be applied to improve employee productivity and satisfaction, to help set individual and organizational goals, to put stress in perspective, and to structure jobs so that they offer optimal levels of challenge, control, variety, and collaboration.
This article demystifies understanding of motivation in the workplace and presents recent findings in organizational behavior that have been found to contribute positively to practices of improving motivation and work life.
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Motivation in the Workplace
Motivation in the workplace has been traditionally understood in terms of extrinsic rewards, be in the form of compensation, benefits, perks, awards, or career progression.
With today’s rapidly evolving knowledge economy, motivation requires more than a stick and carrot approach. Research shows that innovation and creativity, crucial to generating new ideas and greater productivity, are often stifled when extrinsic rewards are introduced.
Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us explains the tricky aspect of external rewards and argues that they are like drugs where more frequent doses are needed more and more often (2009). Rewards can often signal that activity is undesirable.
Interesting and challenging activities are often rewarding in themselves. Rewards tend to focus and narrow attention and work well only if they enhance the ability to do something intrinsically valuable. Extrinsic motivation is best when used for motivating employees to perform algorithmic activities but can be detrimental for creative endeavors.
Anticipating rewards can also impair judgment and cause risk-seeking behavior because it activates dopamine. We don’t notice peripheral and long-term solutions when immediate rewards are offered. Studies have shown that people will often choose the low road when chasing after rewards because addictive behavior is short-term focused, and some may opt for a quick win.
Pink warns that greatness and nearsightedness are incompatible, and seven deadly flaws of rewards are soon to follow (2009). He found that anticipating rewards often have undesirable consequences and tends to:
- Extinguish intrinsic motivation
- Decrease performance
- Encourage cheating
- Decrease creativity
- Crowd out good behavior
- Become addictive
- Foster short term thinking (Pink, 2009)
Pink suggests that we should reward only routine tasks to boost motivation and provide rationale and acknowledge that some activities are boring and allow people to complete the task their way. When we increase variety and mastery opportunities at work, we increase motivation.
Rewards should be given only after the task is completed, preferably as a surprise, varied in frequency, and alternated between tangible rewards and praise. Providing information and meaningful, specific feedback about the effort (not the person) has also been found more effective than material rewards for increasing motivation (Pink, 2009).
Motivation Theories in Organizational Behavior
Over the years, dozens of theories of motivation have been proposed, and some were developed with workplace productivity in mind.
For better or for worse, they have shaped the landscape of our understanding of organizational behavior and have shaped our approaches to employee motivation. We discuss here a few of the most frequently applied theories of motivation in organizational behavior.
Hertzberg’s Two-Factor Theory
Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of motivation, also known as dual-factor theory or motivation-hygiene theory, was a result of a study in the 1950s that analyzed responses of 200 accountants and engineers who were asked about their positive and negative feelings about their work. Herzberg concluded that two major factors influence employee motivation and satisfaction with their jobs:
- Motivator factors that can motivate employees to work harder and lead to on-the-job satisfaction that includes experiences of greater engagement in and enjoyment of the work, feelings of recognition, and a sense of career progression.
- Hygiene factors that can potentially lead to dissatisfaction and a lack of motivation if they are absent like adequate compensation, effective company policies, comprehensive benefits, or good relationships with managers and co-workers.
Herzberg maintained that while motivator and hygiene factors both influence motivation, they appeared to work entirely independently of each other. He found that motivator factors increased employee satisfaction and motivation, but the absence of these factors didn’t necessarily cause dissatisfaction.
Likewise, the presence of hygiene factors didn’t appear to increase satisfaction and motivation, but their absence caused an increase in dissatisfaction. It is debatable whether his theory would hold true today outside of blue-collar industries, particularly with the millennials who, according to recent studies, are reportedly looking for meaningful work and growth.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory proposed that employees become motivated along a continuum of satisfaction of needs from basic physiological needs to higher-level psychological needs for growth and self-actualization. The hierarchy was originally conceptualized into five levels:
- Physiological needs that must be met for a person to survive, such as food, water, and shelter.
- Safety needs that include personal and financial security and health and wellbeing.
- Belonging needs for friendships, relationships, and family.
- Esteem needs that include feelings of confidence in the self and respect from others.
- Self-actualization needs that define the desire to achieve everything one possibly can and realizing one’s full potential.
According to the hierarchy of needs, we must be in good health, safe, and secure with meaningful relationships and confidence before we can reach for the realization of our full potential.
For a full discussion of other theories of psychological needs and the importance of needs satisfaction, see our article on How to Motivate.
The Hawthorne Effect, named after a series of social experiments on the influence of physical conditions on productivity at Western Electric’s factory at Hawthorne, Chicago in the 1920s and 30s, was first described by Henry Landsberger in 1950 who noticed a tendency for some people to work harder and perform better when researchers were observing them.
Although the researchers changed many physical conditions throughout the experiments, including lighting, working hours and breaks, and the employee productivity increased, it was more significant in response to the attention being paid to them, rather than the actual physical changes themselves.
Today the Hawthorne Effect is best understood as a justification for the value of providing employees with specific and meaningful feedback and recognition. It is contradicted by the existence of results only workplace environments that allow complete autonomy and is focused on performance and deliverables rather than management of employees.
Expectancy Theory proposes that we are motivated by our expectations of the outcomes as a result of our behavior and make a decision based on the likelihood of being rewarded for that behavior in a way that we perceive as valuable.
For example, an employee may be more likely to work harder if he or she had been promised a pay rise and thus perceived that outcome as very likely and desirable, than if the employee had only assumed they might get one and saw the outcome as possible but not likely or if they do not value the type of reward being offered.
Expectancy Theory posits that three elements affect our behavioral choices:
- Expectancy is the belief that our effort will result in our desired goal and is based on our past experience and influenced by our self-confidence and our anticipation of how difficult the goal is to achieve.
- Instrumentality is the belief that we will receive a reward if we meet performance expectations.
- Valence is the value we place on the reward.
Expectancy Theory tells us that we are most motivated when we believe that we will receive the desired reward if we hit an achievable and valued target, and are least motivated if we do not care for the reward or do not believe that our efforts will result in the reward.
Three-Dimensional Theory of Attribution
Attribution Theory explains how we attach meaning to our own and other people’s behavior and how the characteristics of these attributions can affect future motivation.
There are several theories about attribution, but Bernard Weiner’s Three-Dimensional Theory of Attribution proposed that the nature of the specific attribution like bad luck or not working hard enough was less important than the characteristics of that attribution as perceived and experienced by the individual. According to Weiner, there are three main characteristics of attributions that can influence how we behave in the future:
Stability of the attribution is defined by pervasiveness and permanence where an example of a stable factor would be an employee believing that he or she failed to meet the expectation because of lack of support or competence versus an unstable factor, such as not performing well due to being ill or some temporary shortage of resources.
There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.
According to Weiner, stable attributions for successful achievements can be informed by previous positive experiences, such as completing the project on time and can lead to positive expectations, and thus higher motivation, for success in the future. In adverse situations, such as repeated failures to meet the deadline, can lead to stable attributions characterized by a sense of futility and can lead to lower expectations in the future.
Locus of control describes a perspective about the event as caused by either an internal or an external factor. For example, if the employee believes it was his or her fault the project failed, because of an innate quality such as a lack of skills or ability to meet the challenge, they may be less motivated in the future.
If they believe an external factor was to blame, such as an unrealistic deadline or shortage of staff, they may not experience such a drop in motivation.
Controllability defines how controllable or avoidable the situation was. If an employee believes they could have performed better, they may be less motivated to try again in the future than someone who feels factors outside of their control caused the circumstances surrounding the setback.
Theory X and Theory Y
Douglas McGregor proposed two theories to describe managerial views on employee motivation: Theory X and Theory Y. These vastly different views of employee motivation have drastically different implications for management.
He divided leaders into those that believe most employees avoid work and dislike responsibility, Theory X managers, and Theory Y managers who say that most employees enjoy work and exert effort when they have control in the workplace.
He proposed that to motivate Theory X employees, the company needs to push and control their staff through enforcing rules and implementing punishments.
Theory Y employees, on the other hand, are perceived as consciously choosing to be involved in their work. They are self-motivated and can exert self-management, and leaders’ responsibility is to create a supportive environment and develop opportunities for employees to take on responsibility and show creativity.
Theory X is heavily informed by what we know about intrinsic motivation, and the role satisfaction of basic psychological needs plays in effective employee motivation.
Taking the theory X and Theory Y as a starting point, a third theory, Theory Z, was developed by Dr. William Ouchi. The theory combines American and Japanese management philosophies and focuses on long-term job security, consensual decision making, slow evaluation and promotion procedures, and individual responsibility within a group context.
Its noble goals include increasing employee loyalty to the company by providing a job for life, focusing on the employee’s well-being, and encourages group work and social interaction to motivate employees in the workplace.
Employee Motivation Strategies
The implications of these numerous theories on ways of motivating employees are many. They vary with whatever perspectives leadership escribes to motivation and how that is cascaded down and incorporated into practices, policies, and culture.
The effectiveness of these approaches is further determined by whether individual preferences for methods of motivation are considered. Nevertheless, various motivational theories can guide our focus on aspects of organizational behavior that may require intervening.
Hertzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, for example, implies that for the happiest and most productive workforce, companies need to work on improving both motivator and hygiene factors.
The theory suggests that to help motivate employees, the organization must assure everyone feels appreciated and supported, is given plenty of specific and meaningful feedback, and has understanding and confidence in how he or she can grow and progress professionally.
To prevent job dissatisfaction, companies must make sure to address the hygiene factors by offering employees the best possible working conditions and fair pay that includes forming supportive relationships with them.
For true engagement to occur in a company you must first remove the issues that cause dissatisfaction – the baseline benefits offered by the company that satisfy the hygiene needs of the employee. Then you must focus on the individual and what they want out of their association with your enterprise. – Hertzberg
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, on the other hand, can be used to transform a business where managers struggle with the abstract concept of self-actualization and tend to focus too much on lower level needs instead. Chip Conley, the founder of the Joie de Vivre hotel chain and Head of Hospitality at Airbnb, found one way to address this dilemma by helping his employees understand the meaning of their roles during a staff retreat.
In one exercise, he asked groups of housekeepers to describe themselves and their job responsibilities by giving their group a name that reflects the nature and the purpose of what they were doing. They came up with names such as “The Serenity Sisters,” “The Clutter Busters,” and “The Peace of Mind Police.”
These designations provided a meaningful rationale and gave them a sense that they were doing more than just cleaning and were instead “creating a space for a traveler who was far away from home to feel safe and protected.” By showing them the value of their roles, Conley enabled his employees to feel respected and motivated to work harder.
The Hawthorne Effect studies and Weiner’s Three-Dimensional theory of attribution have implications for providing and soliciting regular feedback and praise. Recognizing employees’ efforts and providing specific and constructive feedback in the areas where they can improve can help prevent them from attributing their failures to an innate lack of skills.
Praising employees for showing an improvement or using the correct methodology, even if the ultimate results were not achieved, can encourage them to improve and reframe setbacks as learning opportunities continuously. This can foster an environment of psychological safety that can further contribute to them seeing that success is controllable through the use of different strategies and setting achievable goals.
Theories X, Y, and Z show that some of the most impactful ways to begin or to strengthen a journey to build a thriving organization are to craft organizational practices that build autonomy, competence, and provide a sense of belonging. These practices include providing decision-making discretion, sharing information broadly, minimizing incidents of incivility, and offering performance feedback.
Being told what to do is not an effective way to negotiate. Having a sense of autonomy at work fuels vitality and growth and creates environments where employees are more likely to thrive when empowered to make decisions that affect their work.
Feedback satisfies the psychological need for competence. When others value our work, we tend to appreciate it more and work harder. Particularly two-way, open, frequent, and guided feedback creates opportunities for learning.
Frequent and specific feedback helps people know where they stand in terms of their skills, competencies, and performance and builds feelings of competence and, in turn, thriving. Immediate, specific, and public praise focusing on effort and behavior and not traits are most effective. Positive feedback energizes employees to seek their full potential.
Lack of appreciation is psychologically exhausting, and studies show that recognition improves health because people experience less stress. In addition to being acknowledged by their manager, peer-to-peer recognition was shown to have a positive impact on the employee experience (Anderson, 2018) as were suggestions for rewarding the team around the person who did well and staying away from giving time off to top performers as a form of recognition and instead giving them more responsibility.
Other approaches to motivation at work worth mentioning include those that focus on meaning and those that stress the importance of creating positive work environments.
Meaningful work is more and more often considered to be a cornerstone of motivation. In some cases, burnout is not caused by too much work but by too little meaningful work. For many years, researchers have recognized the motivating potential of task significance and doing work that affects the well-being of others.
All too often, employees do work that makes a difference but never have the chance to see or to meet the people affected by their work. Research by Adam Grant speaks to the power of long-term goals that benefit others and shows how the use of meaning to motivate those who are not likely to climb the ladder can make the job meaningful by broadening perspectives (2013).
Creating an upbeat, positive work environment can also play an essential role in increasing employee motivation and can be accomplished through:
- encouraging teamwork and idea-sharing
- providing tools and knowledge to perform well
- eliminating conflict as it arises
- giving employees the freedom to work independently when appropriate
- helping employees establish professional goals and objectives and aligning these goals with the individual’s self-esteem
- making the cause and effect relationship clear by establishing a goal and its reward
- offering encouragement when workers hit notable milestones
- celebrating employee achievements and team accomplishments while avoiding comparing one worker’s achievements to those of others
- offering the incentive of a profit-sharing program and collective goal-setting and teamwork
- soliciting employee input through regular surveys of employee satisfaction
- providing professional enrichment through encouraging employees to pursue additional education, participate in industry organizations, skills workshops, and seminars, and providing tuition reimbursement
- motivate through curiosity and creating an environment that stimulates employee interest to learn more
- using cooperation and competition as a form of motivation based on individual preferences
Sometimes inexperienced leaders will assume that the same factors that motivate one employee, or the leaders themselves, will have the same effect on others too. Some will make the mistake of introducing de-motivating factors into the workplace, such as punishment for mistakes or frequent criticisms, but negative reinforcement rarely works and often backfires.
It’s important to keep in mind that motivation is individual, and the degree of success achieved through one single strategy will not be the most effective way to motivate all employees.
Motivation and Job Performance
There are several positive psychology interventions (PPIs) that can be used in the workplace to improve important outcomes, such as increased motivation and work engagement, job performance, and reduced job stress. Numerous empirical studies have been conducted in recent years to verify the effects of these interventions.
Psychological Capital Interventions
Research demonstrates that psychological capital interventions are associated with a variety of work outcomes that include improved job performance, engagement, and organizational citizenship behaviors (Avey et al. 2010; Luthans et al. 2007). Psychological capital (PsyCap) refers to a psychological state that is malleable and open to development and consists of four major components:
- self-efficacy and confidence in one’s ability to succeed at challenging work tasks
- optimism and positive attributions about the future of one’s career or company
- hope and redirecting paths to work goals in the face of obstacles
- resilience in the workplace and bouncing back from adverse situations (Luthans and Youssef-Morgan 2017).
Job Crafting Interventions
Research demonstrates that job crafting interventions where employees who design and have control over the characteristics of their work may create an optimal fit between work demands and their personal strengths, which can lead to improved performance and greater work engagement (Bakker et al. 2016; Wingerden et al. 2016).
The concept of job crafting is rooted in the jobs demands-resources theory (JD-R) and suggests that employee motivation, engagement, and performance can be influenced by practices such as:
- attempts to alter social job resources like feedback and coaching
- structural job resources like opportunities to develop at work
- challenging job demands, such as reducing workload and creating new projects (Tims et al., 2012).
Job crafting is a self-initiated, proactive process at work by which employees change elements of their jobs to optimize the fit between their job demands and personal needs, abilities, and strengths (Wrzesniewski and Dutton, 2001).
Leadership and Motivation
Leaders of all sorts can go a long way in increasing employee motivation and engagement at work.
Today’s motivation research shows that participation is likely to lead to several positive behaviors as long as managers encourage greater engagement, motivation, and productivity while recognizing the importance of respite and work recovery.
One key factor for increasing work engagement is psychological safety (Kahn, 1990). According to Amy Edmondson, psychological safety allows an employee or team member to engage in interpersonal risk-taking and refers to being able to bring one’s authentic self to work without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career (1999).
When employees perceive psychological safety, they are less likely to be distracted by negative emotions such as fear, which stems from worrying about controlling perceptions of managers and colleagues.
Dealing with fear also requires intense emotional regulation (Barsade, Brief, & Spataro, 2003), which takes away from the ability of an individual to fully immerse him or herself in his or her work tasks. The presence of psychological safety in the workplace decreases such distractions, and allows an employee to expend his or her energy toward being absorbed and attentive to work tasks.
Effective structural features, such as coaching leadership and context support, are some ways in which managers can initiate psychological safety in the workplace (Hackman, 1987). Leaders’ behavior can significantly influence how employees behave and can lead to greater trust (Tyler & Lind, 1992).
Supportive, coaching-oriented, and non-defensive responses to employee concerns and questions can lead to heightened feelings of safety and assure the presence of vital psychological capital.
Another essential factor for increasing work engagement and motivation is the balance between the job demands and the resources that an employee has at his or her disposal.
Job demands can stem from time pressures, physical demands, high-priority, and shift work and are not necessarily detrimental. Both presences of job demands and resources can increase engagement, but it is important that employees perceive that they have sufficient resources to deal with their work demands (Rich et al., 2010).
Challenging demands can be very motivating by energizing employees to achieve their goals and by stimulating their personal growth. Still, they also require that employees be more attentive and absorbed and direct more energy toward their work (Bakker & Demerouti, 2008).
Unfortunately, when employees perceive that they do not have enough control to tackle these challenging demands, the same high demands will be experienced as very depleting (Karasek, 1979).
This sense of perceived control can be increased with sufficient resources like managerial and peer support and, like the effects of psychological safety, can ensure that employees are not hindered by distraction that can limit their attention, absorption, and energy that they put toward their work.
According to the Job Demand–Resources (JD-R) occupational stress model, which suggests that job demands that force employees to be attentive and absorbed can be depleting, if not coupled with adequate resources, shows how sufficient resources allow employees to sustain a positive level of engagement that does not eventually lead to discouragement or burnout (Demerouti, Bakker, Nachreiner, and Schaufeli’s (2001).
And last but not least, another set of factors that are critical for increasing work engagement involves core self-evaluations and self-concept (Judge, & Bono, 2001). Efficacy, self-esteem, locus of control, identity, and perceived social impact may be critical drivers of an individual’s psychological availability, as evident in the attention, absorption, and energy directed toward their work.
Self-esteem and efficacy are enhanced by increasing employees’ general confidence in their abilities, which in turn assists in making them feel secure about themselves and, therefore, more motivated and engaged in their work (Rich et al., 2010).
Social impact, in particular, has come to take a central stage in the growing tendency for employees to seek out meaningful work. One such example is the MBA Oath created by 25 graduating Harvard MBAs pledging to lead professional careers marked with integrity and ethics:
The MBA Oath
“As a business leader, I recognize my role in society.
My purpose is to lead people and manage resources to create value that no single individual can create alone.
My decisions affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and tomorrow. Therefore, I promise that:
- I will manage my enterprise with loyalty and care, and will not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society.
- I will understand and uphold, in letter and spirit, the laws and contracts governing my conduct and that of my enterprise.
- I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.
- I will protect the human rights and dignity of all people affected by my enterprise, and I will oppose discrimination and exploitation.
- I will protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.
- I will report the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.
- I will invest in developing myself and others, helping the management profession continue to advance and create sustainable and inclusive prosperity.
In exercising my professional duties according to these principles, I recognize that my behavior must set an example of integrity, eliciting trust, and esteem from those I serve. I will remain accountable to my peers and to society for my actions and for upholding these standards. This oath, I make freely, and upon my honor.”
Motivation and Good Business
Under the right circumstances, positive institutions can enable positive traits, which in turn can enable positive subjective experiences for their employees.
Prosocial motivation is an important motor behind many individual and collective accomplishments at work.
It is a strong predictor of persistence, performance, and productivity when accompanied by intrinsic motivation. Prosocial motivation was also indicative of more affiliative citizenship behaviors when it was accompanied by motivation toward impression management motivation and was a stronger predictor of job performance when managers were perceived as trustworthy (Ciulla, 2000).
On a day-to-day basis most jobs can’t fill the tall order of making the world better, but particular incidents at work have meaning because you make a valuable contribution or you are able to genuinely help someone in need.
Prosocial motivation was shown to enhance the creativity of intrinsically motivated employees, the performance of employees with high core self-evaluations, and the performance evaluations of proactive employees. The psychological mechanisms that enable this are importance placed on task significance, encouraging perspective-taking, and fostering social emotions of anticipated guilt and gratitude (Ciulla, 2000).
Some argue that organizations whose products and services contribute to positive human growth are examples of what constitutes good business (Csíkszentmihályi, 2004). Environments with a soul are those enterprises where employees experience deep engagement and develop toward greater complexity.
In these unique environments, employees are provided opportunities to do what they do best. In return, their organizations reap the benefits of higher productivity and lower turnover, as well as greater profit, customer satisfaction, and workplace safety. Most importantly, however, the level of engagement, involvement, or degree to which employees are positively stretched, contributes to the experience of wellbeing at work (Csíkszentmihályi, 2004).
A Take-Home Message
Daniel Pink argues that when it comes to motivation, management is the problem, not the solution as it represents antiquated notions of what motivates people. He claims that even the most sophisticated forms of empowering employees and providing flexibly are no more than civilized forms of control.
He gives an example of companies that fall under the umbrella of what is known as Results-Only Work Environments (ROWE), which allow all their employees to work whenever and wherever they want as long their work gets done.
Valuing results rather than face time can change the cultural definition of a successful worker by challenging the notion that long hours and constant availability signal commitment (Kelly et al., 2010).
Studies show that ROWE can increase employees’ control over their work schedule, improve work-life fit, positively affect employees’ sleep duration, energy levels, self-reported health, and exercise, while decreasing tobacco and alcohol use (Moen, Kelly, & Lam, 2013; Moen, Kelly, Tranby, & Huang, 2011).
Perhaps this type of solution sounds overly ambitious, and many a traditional working environment is not ready for such drastic changes. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the quickly amassing evidence that work environments that offer autonomy, opportunities for growth, and pursuit of meaning are good for our health, our souls, and our society.
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Related reading: Motivation in Education: What it Takes to Motivate Our Kids
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