Two Surprising Truths About What Motivates Employees

Many managers at companies believe morale and engagement are low because of salary or compensation issues.

And that isn’t entirely false.

Through extrinsic rewards such as sales incentives, contests or reward programs, employees are taught that if you do “THIS”, you’ll get “THAT”. So when a contest or reward opportunity ends, or they do the same behavior and don’t get the “THAT”, they think you are telling them that they are not doing a good job anymore.

When companies put a great deal of emphasis on extrinsic rewards, it often causes employers and employees alike to undervalue the power of the natural drivers that exist in all of us.

Surprising Truth #1: External Motivators Only Go So Far

If you ask an employee to tell you about a day when he or she felt the most energized or productive at work, you’ll rarely hear a recount of the day when a paycheck or bonus check arrived.

Often it’s a story about an exciting project launching or a team goal being accomplished. One shouldn’t underestimate the importance of what naturally motivates an employee to perform his or her job. It’s these intrinsic motivators and natural drivers that truly enable employers to drive engagement and performance. Yet, so few organizations understand this well enough to capitalize on it.

To date, companies have put far too much emphasis on extrinsic rewards, probably because it’s easier to apply a one-size-fits-all approach.

However, all too often, accomplishing tasks for extrinsic rewards distracts employees from their natural motivation to perform the tasks in the first place. Thus, external rewards can often do more harm than good.1

Surprising Truth #2: Everyone’s Motivations Are Unique

When managers have important messages to convey, are trying to achieve department goals, or are trying to assemble teams for new initiatives, they’ll often use their own preferences and motivations as reference points. Trying to understand how to motivate millennials can also be difficult.

But when they find that people don’t react to their communications or get instantly inspired, they’re left wondering why. After all, had they personally heard the same message, they surely would have felt motivated and ready to jump right in.

What managers fail to realize is each individual’s motivators are different. What motivates one individual to perform might demotivate another. Additionally, the work environment in which one person works might be highly effective and motivating for one, yet demotivating and distracting for another.

Thus, without realizing it, managers often blame individuals for being lazy or low performers when really a motivational driver has yet to be identified, creating an employee-job alignment problem.

If you’re trying to motivate individuals, understanding how each of those individuals are naturally motivated is key to creating personalized, optimal approaches to leveraging each individual’s inherent drivers.

1. Pink, Daniel. (2009). Drive, Riverhead Books.

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