What Motivates Employees?

There is certainly no scarcity of studies you can read that attempt to explain what motivates employees.  And those studies have been commissioned largely because every business leader in the world wants to know the secret to getting his or her people fired up about driving company growth.  However, my observation is that often the best way to resolve some enterprise “mysteries” is to simply apply a little common sense.  And when it comes to figuring out what motivates employees, I believe that’s a better approach then plumbing the depths of academic research.  Let’s explore why. 

Read Our Report on the Impact of Pay on Employee Motivation

There are six self-evident employee motivators.

If you lead a business, you want to hire people who have a growth mindset.  (If that’s not your focus, then you can stop reading now, because nothing else I say here will matter.)  Through her research, Carol Dweck discovered this about those who have this self-view:

Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset. They tend to achieve more than those with a more fixed mindset (those who believe their talents are innate gifts). This is because they worry less about looking smart and they put more energy into learning. When entire companies embrace a growth mindset, their employees report feeling far more empowered and committed; they also receive far greater organizational support for collaboration and innovation. In contrast, people at primarily fixed-mindset companies report more of only one thing: cheating and deception among employees, presumably to gain an advantage in the talent race.

If people in your organization possess the mindset just described, there are certain assumptions you can make about what drives them.  In fact, you have probably observed these things in yourself—because they are self-evident.  For example, we thrive on things that make us feel fulfilled and reward our ambitions.  And we withdraw from things that diminish us or stifle our ability to make a significant contribution to meaningful ends.  It's not complicated.  

So, if we think in these “real life” terms, it isn’t hard to formulate a pretty good list of factors that fuel employee motivation.  Drawing on my own experience, and what I have observed in high-performance organizations, here is how I would answer the title question of this article.  See if this list doesn’t resonate with your experience as well. 

6 Self-Evident Employee Motivators

1. A Compelling Future. People need a vivid vision of what the future holds in store before they will commit themselves to a role.  Conversely, once compelled, they will do virtually anything to make that future a reality.  Stephen R. Covey called this “begin with the end in mind.”

Offering a compelling future doesn't just mean explaining what kind of success the company can achieve if everyone works hard.  Employees need to know where they fit in that future and why their unique contributions are needed for its fulfillment.  They must be excited about where the business is headed and believe that it will not reach its full potential unless they are involved. 

2. A Sense of Purpose. Growth-mindset people have contribution ambitions.  These takes two forms.  First, they want the work they do to matter—to fulfill a worthy end.  Second, they want the success they help the company achieve to facilitate their ability to fund the meaningful ends they want to serve in their lives.  This is different for everyone.  Some have special causes or charities they want to support.  Others want to ensure their children get a great education.  Many want to be able to contribute their time and talents to organizations or events to which they have a personal connection.  All these ambitions have economic implications.  As a result, employees want an opportunity to share in the financial success they help the company achieve.  When that happens, they are motivated to help the company win because it means they are once step closer to fulfilling their contribution goals.

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3. Expansion of Unique Abilities. People of distinct talent want to know that their abilities will be magnified as a result of their association with the company that employs them.  This means at least a couple of things.  First, they want company leadership to recognize what their unique abilities are so they will be placed in roles where they can have the greatest impact.  Drawing on a baseball analogy, if they are a great relief pitcher, they don’t want to end up in the outfield or on first base.  They want to pitch.  Second, they want to work with others who have complementary abilities, because that’s what creates successful teams (see #6).  Again, the baseball analogy applies.  Teams win when player roles are aligned with their unique talents.

People’s abilities expand when they are offered tools and resources that make them better at what they do.  This doesn’t just mean good training, although that's important.  It has to do with everything from the technology afforded them to the project assignments they are given and the other people who make up their team.  A company’s culture is also a resource, if it’s a good one.  When people are feeling fulfilled personally and professionally in their roles, they are motivated.  It’s a natural extension of their growth mindset.

4. Stability. Trust and confidence facilitate motivation.  The opposite kills it.  People need a consistent, positive experience in their work environment.  This comes when there is operational integrity and continuity throughout the organization and in all facets of the employee value proposition.  If there is a disconnect between what people are promised and what they experience, distrust sets in and motivation dies.  If that happens repeatedly, you end up with an attrition problem, not just a motivation issue. 

To ensure stability, organizations should focus on building line of sight.  This has to do with making sure every member of the organization understands the relationship between these elements:

  • The owners’ vision.
  • The business model and strategy designed to fulfill that vision.
  • The employee’s role in that model and strategy, and what’s expected of that person in that role.
  • How the employee will be rewarded for fulfilling those expectations. 

When this kind of alignment exists in an organization, people gain confidence in both the company and themselves.  They see the path the business is following and have a clear understanding of the strategic significance of their role.  That’s motivating.

5. Partnership.  Growth mindset individuals don’t just want to fill a position and do a job.  They want to fulfill a role and have an impact.  This requires leadership to see the people working in the company as growth partners, not employees.  Such a view is not something that can be manufactured.  It’s not a strategy.  It’s a core belief and philosophy.  When chief executives consider those who work for them to be partners in growing the company, a lot of other things naturally fall into place.  One of them is employee motivation.  People who are treated as partners approach their roles differently.  They seem them as stewardships and take ownership of the outcomes their roles exist to fulfill.

One of the primary ways a sense of partnership in engendered is through compensation.  Stated differently, the way you pay your people tells them whether you see them as employees or a growth partners.  For example, if the compensation you offer me consists of a salary, an annual incentive plan, group benefits and a 401(k) plan, you are sending me a message.  You are saying you see me as an employee, not a partner.  Why?  Because partnership implies you want me to me to look at the business through the same lens owners do.  Yet, nothing in my compensation tells me that’s how you want me to see things.  There is no component of pay that tells me that if I help the company grow by driving long-term value creation, I will participate in the wealth multiple I help create.  That doesn’t make me feel like a partner.  And if I don’t feel like a partner, I won’t be as motivated.

6. Success.  Winning is a natural motivator.  And when businesses combine organizational and individual success, they develop a high-performance culture.  By definition, high-performance cultures are those where confidence is widespread because their people have mastered the art of winning.  Love them or hate them, think New England Patriots.

When people are compelled by a company’s future, are fulfilling a meaningful purpose, are seeing their unique abilities magnified, are having a stable experience and are being treated like partners, they succeed.  When they do, the company wins.  And people who are part of successful, winning organizations are motivated. 

So, take the results of all the studies and research you can find on employee motivation and compare them with this list.  If they’re in conflict, well…you’ll have to decide which route to follow.  The path research suggests or the one laid out here. 

If it were me, I’d follow the path of common sense.

Learn about the impact of pay on employee motivation. 

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