You Thought Wrong – What Really Motivates People?

alyssa and sandra after race

Most recent research on what motivates people completely blows up the old notion that quid pro quo rewards motivate employees at work. More than a hundred years ago managers began taking an industrial approach to motivating people by teaching them to specialize in one skill, do that one skill at work, and not think about or worry about anything else. Employees were expected to do as they were told and let managers decide what was best for them. This fit with the research many psychologists were doing as well that taught birds, mice, dogs, or other animals to perform specific tricks or behaviors in order to earn rewards. This management and psychological mentality led to the notion that people are motivated at work through promises of rewards if they complete their jobs proficiently.

But research in the last decade or two into the differences between intrinsic motivation – that comes from within a person, versus extrinsic motivation – that comes from rewards or punishment, clearly shows people are vastly more motivated intrinsically, and our psychological needs are far more sophisticated that simple rewards for completing behaviors. People are motivated much more strongly by things such as learning, growing, improving and attaining mastery and skill; by social relationships that are meaningful; by contributing to a higher purpose or giving back to society; and by having free choice and autonomy in their lives, and decisions that affect them at work. Plus, people at work are motivated differently at various times in their lives and based on how closely their work expectations match their values and meet their psychological needs.

As an example, I’ve run a handful of half-marathon races in the last several years. I’ve met many runners at these events and found they are all motivated by different things. Some, simply love running and participating in big running events. Others run because of health benefits. Some participate in a long run like a marathon, half-marathon, or 10K run simply to cross that item off their bucket list of things they always wanted to do. There are also many race events that allow the runners to raise funds for charitable causes that give back to the community in a positive way. I also know some runners (hmmmm – could be me) who don’t really enjoy running, but love the relational aspect of running with family members (like my daughter, brother, nieces or nephews) who do enjoy race events. I’ve found a way to align something valuable to me (relationships, donating to the community, and achieving a goal) in order to push me into keeping in relatively decent physical shape in order to participate because I am not motivated by running simply for the joy of it or the health aspects.

For supervisors and managers who are striving to discover and develop as leaders, it is important to get to know your employees’ motivations. What are the things that are most important to them? Tap into the autonomy, relationship building, community or societal giving, and learning and growth motivations that may be much more powerful than simple rewards and punishments. Then, help employees align their highest and best motivations with contributing to the best and highest goals and results for your team, department, or organization. You may be amazed at the performance differences you see when employee motivations are aligned with organizational goals and aspirations.