What Really Motivates Your Employees

In my work as adjunct faculty for the University of Phoenix’s School of Business in Southern Arizona (I’m talking brick and mortar instruction, not online), I spend a great deal of time with my MBA students exploring motivation and motivation theory.  As mentioned in the Harvard Business Review article, current research shows that people are motivated by three main things (and it’s not money or a hierarchy of fulfilling ever progressive needs).

  1. People want to make a difference in their lives, the lives of others, the workplace, their community, or the world.  They want to know that what they do “matters” – that it is important and serves a purpose greater than just putting food on the table or bringing in enough money to pay the rent.  If your employees don’t feel that there is a meaningful purpose behind their work they may get complacent, seek purpose and fulfillment in hobbies or community work, or resign so they can work someplace they believe will give them more opportunities to make a positive impact.
  2. The next thing that is important to people is succeeding at what they do.  Again, I don’t mean succeeding at bringing in a lot of money, although I’m sure that is a great benefit of being good at what you do.  Instead,  people like to be good at what they do.  That’s why they practice and specialize so often in every aspect of life.  When learning a musical instrument, or trying to improve at a sport doing drills and practicing may be tedious but it is the way someone gets better and gains mastery over the skill they want to develop.  I read recently that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to truly become a master at something.  When a person seems incredibly focused or incredibly competitive it is not necessarily that they want to win a prize or award or gold medal.  It is that they want to continuously get better, improve, and become exceptional at whatever it is they do.
  3. Finally, research shows that people really do want the chance to have autonomy and decision-making power over their own work and lives.  I think this stems from wanting some control in an ever-changing and often unpredictable world.  I’ll write more about this in a future blog post, but for now I will say that my experience has shown that organizations often fall far short of providing employees with all the information and resources needed to do their jobs and then allowing the employees themselves determine the best way to accomplish the work.

When I work with supervisors and managers who believe their employees are unmotivated, complacent, apathetic or low in morale – it is almost always because these supervisors and managers have stifled one or more of these three factors of motivation. For more information about the three things that motivate people, check out this video adaptation of Dan Pink’s famous TED talk on the subject.