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What Motivates Employees?

What motivates employees? This is the question every manager, new or experienced, faces during their career.

Motivation Stair Run

Who could ever forget Tom Cruise yelling into the phone “Show Me the Money” again and again to his client Cuba Gooding, Jr. It is so easy to go from there to thinking that money is the most important motivator.

Jan had fire in her eyes when she was required to participate in the introduction to the new performance management system. Her resentment burst out when I said something about money NOT being a very good motivator. She said something like, “I have to call B.S. on that. Money is the key motivator. Try to get people to work without it or without raises and you’ll see just how important money is.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a manager say something like that. But the comparison is false. Certainly, it would be de-motivating to be broke and to be paid so little that you could only meet your basic needs at a very low level. The reverse is not at all true. Making lots of money does not create job satisfaction; lots of very highly paid people quit their jobs all the time because there are important motivators missing from their work.

Does LeBron need that extra few million bucks a year to be satisfied with his job? Does Tiger play for the money? Are the C-suite people on Wall Street motivated by a few hundred thousand dollars a year? Hardly! As with the Cuba Gooding, Jr. character, money is simply how these people keep score.

You’ve Got To Understand Opposites

As professor Herzberg said so many years ago, the opposite of job dissatisfaction is not job satisfaction. The opposite is actually the absence of job dissatisfaction. A bit tricky, but it is a little like health. Just because you are not sick does not mean you are healthy. Just because you don’t hate your job doesn’t mean you love it. Just because your boss is not a jerk does not mean he is a good boss.

This is where Herzberg came up with the label for all those factors at work that are necessary to prevent job dissatisfaction but which do not create motivation. He called them “hygiene” factors. Kind of like a diet needs to include some protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Without sufficient calories of the right kind, we get sick. But getting lots more protein will not make us healthier. So it is with the typical work hygiene factors like company policy on vacation, benefits, time off, sick pay, work conditions, technology, and compensation.

Why Money Isn’t A Motivator

Without comparable hygiene factors, you probably would feel dissatisfied. But you would not feel more motivated if your employer provided you with three desktop computers or three phones. While you might appreciate additional vacation time, once you have used it for the year, it generally does not motivate you anymore. Money works in the same way. If you are paid well under what you believe your job is worth, it is dissatisfying. If your employer increases your compensation to what the market says your job is worth, that increase is satisfying, but oddly enough, it does not motivate you because you know that another such increase is highly unlikely. Research shows that people quickly get used to whatever compensation increase they have just received and it loses any impact on their behavior almost immediately.

The Real Motivators

Given all that, what factors truly motivate people? According to Herzberg, the critical motivators are achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement, and growth. These factors are unique for each individual and need to be carefully managed so that they provide the greatest motivation possible. And of course, they can be abused. Advancing someone before they are capable of being successful in the next job can be excruciatingly painful for everyone involved. Giving people more responsibility than they can effectively handle can be demotivating.

Add to these motivators the cultural environment that includes trust, trustworthiness, and a certain degree of psychological safety and you create a motivational engine of great power.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week some research from the Gartner corporation which said that bosses now manage, on average, nine direct reports, up from five in 2008. This can spread leaders so thin that they don’t have a close grasp of what their employees are doing. Only about 35% of employees surveyed in the Gartner poll last year say their manager understands their day-to-day work.

“Managers are less likely to provide good feedback and coaching when they don’t understand what that employee’s workflow is,” says Brian Kropp, human-resources-practice leader at Gartner. Feedback and coaching underlie several of the real motivators. You might call them the activators of motivation.

Leaders Understand Motivation

Leaders take the time to discuss each of the motivators for each person on their team. They assume nothing; they realize that their own personal motivators are probably very different than those of others. Leaders realize that motivation comes from within. People will respond to fear, yelling, negative feedback – they aren’t stupid and they will get out of the way and do whatever it takes to protect themselves. But that certainly isn’t motivation as defined above; it’s survival. One of the great things about understanding real motivators is that unlike money or benefits, you can’t run out of them. They have endless depth and can take the company far past where the leader by themselves can go. I hope that motivates you to discover the real motivators for the people in your organization.

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