Table of Contents
The Importance of Employee Motivation ➝
Motivational Theories ➝
4 Ways to Motivate Employees ➝
Updated in 2020
Everybody has those days: fractured focus, slow thoughts, and productivity on par with someone trying to move from point A to point B by walking on a treadmill. If it happens to your employees every now and then, they’re human. If it happens every week or every day, you have a problem with motivation — but fret not. You’ve discovered the ultimate resource for any exasperated leader desperately trying to learn how to motivate employees.
By the time you’ve reached the end of this five part series, you’ll be armed not only with strategies to drive motivation, but a deep understanding of the behavioral mechanisms that make them work so well.
The Importance of Employee Motivation
People come to work to, well, work.
It’s an uncreative, yet precise label for the activity most of us participate in for 40, 50, (or hopefully not) 60 hours a week. But an employee’s temporal investment in their job is far from proportional to the quality and quantity of their work.
Managers know better than anyone that motivation is a key mediator in that relationship. The most successful teams are led by managers whose leadership strategies are informed by in-depth knowledge of how to motivate employees.
Chapter one of this series exists to establish the ‘why’ of employee motivation. Why should leaders care about motivation at all? What does it affect? What would happen if it shriveled up and floated away? Is it really worth reading five chapters about?
The short answer is: yes. For the longer answer, read on.
Defining Employee Motivation
In the rich body of literature on human motivation, many definitions have been proposed to effectively outline the concept:
“A predisposition to behave in a purposive manner to achieve specific, unmet needs.”
“The psychological process that gives behavior purpose and direction.”
“An internal drive to satisfy an unsatisfied need.”
“The will to achieve.”
While all these definitions roughly encompass the same core concept, they vary in their nuances (we’ll delve into the implications of these subtle nuances in chapter two when we discuss motivational theories). When it comes to employee motivation, our preferred definition is short and sweet: the will to work.
What Motivation Affects
Many of the outcomes of high employee motivation are also key determinants of organizational success. From strategy and financial health to brand reputation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a facet of organizational success unaffected by employee motivation. Below we’ve listed a few of the most critical outcomes that should ignite your desire to learn how to motivate employees:
- Improved employee efficiency
- Lower rates of turnover
- Higher employee productivity
- Higher quality of product
- Reduced absenteeism
- Lower costs of production
- Increased employee creativity
- More perseverance through challenges
- More innovative ideas
- More effective problem-solving
- More proactive employees
- Clearer understanding of company goals
- More customer-centric employee attitude
- Better team players
- More enthusiastic brand ambassadors
- Improved organizational performance
- Improved job performance
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it paints a fairly clear picture of the impact heightened employee motivation has on a company.
Keep in mind that just as high motivation gives rise to the abundant benefits listed above, depleted motivation exercises an equally heavy influence in precisely the opposite direction. Leaders who don’t understand how to motivate employees not only miss out on all of these advantages — they face the serious threat of low-motivation-induced barriers to team and organizational success.
How Motivation Makes an Impact
Clearly, employee motivation makes an impact. The question that naturally follows is: how? How can this energized internal state trigger effects as far-reaching as the ones listed above?
Employee motivation makes its mark first on an individual level and then on the group as a whole. While the former improves the quality of work produced by each employee, the latter has a compounding effect that makes the value of increased employee motivation much greater than the sum of its parts. It is this exponential group impact that makes it so critical for company leaders set on success to understand how to motivate employees.
On an individual level, increased employee motivation engages people more deeply in their work. They become more attentive, focused, and committed to excellence. When motivation is high, employees are fiercely determined to bring critical objectives to fruition and will stop at almost nothing to do so. As a result of this drive, they work better, harder, and smarter.
At the group level, heightened motivation in one employee spreads to others by silently setting in motion contagious social expectations. One of the most impactful (but under-acknowledged) forces at work in an office is the informal work group. Informal work groups form through three elements:
- Activities: the tasks employees perform while on the job. In other words, the work.
- Interactions: activities don’t happen in isolation; they require frequent and harmonious interactions between employees.
- Sentiments: as employees interact, sentiment builds. If interactions are positive, sentiment is too.
Informal work groups form spontaneously as the activity-interaction-sentiment cycle repeats. Positive sentiment eventually gives way to a sense of cohesion among colleagues and thus, the informal work group is born. Informal work groups dictate the way employees behave and promote a powerful feeling of inclusion that makes it difficult for members to deviate from accepted group behavior.
With this in mind, it’s not hard to imagine how one employee's motivation breeds motivation in others. When two or three members of an informal work group demonstrate high workplace motivation, their peers catch on quickly. As members reinforce each others highly motivated attitudes, employee motivation solidifies as an established cultural norm.
This is all well and good, but leaders learning how to motivate employees need to understand how to incite motivation in individual employees before informal work groups can make it contagious. Chapter three offers actionable suggestions for doing this, but before we begin that discussion, let’s establish a foundational understanding of motivational theories to provide context for why these strategies work.
Depending on who you ask, there are between five and twelve major motivational theories in circulation — not to mention all of the lesser known ones. Much like the many definitions of motivation, these theories’ subtle variations waver around more or less the same central tenets.
The truth is, each major theory captures something fundamental about human motivation. While motivational psychologists’ time might be well spent debating the meticulous details of each theory, leaders looking to learn how to motivate employees will gain the most by bringing their lessons together rather than picking them apart.
The theory of motivation we endorse for the purpose of this series integrates seven of the most well-respected theories of motivation into one cohesive proposal. It was proposed by motivational experts Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria in their 2002 book Driven. Before we discuss what Lawrence and Nohria’s theory has to say about motivation, we’ll briefly review the basic premise of each of the seven popular theories they fused to create it.
Historically Popular Theories of Motivation
1. Motives and Needs
Developed in 1943, Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs posits that people have a hierarchical set of needs, with physiological needs being the most basic followed by safety, social, esteem and finally self-actualization needs. According to Maslow, lower level needs must be met in order for unmet higher level needs to become motivating. The theory additionally specifies that people are only motivated by one need at a time.
Victor Vroom’s theory of expectancy, formulated in 1964, makes the claim that people’s motivation depends on how strongly they believe in the relationship between effort, performance, and rewards. In other words, if a person believes that effort reliably leads to excellent performance and high rewards, the person will be very motivated. If they believe the three are only loosely tied to one another, motivation will be low.
3. Equity and Justice
This aptly named theory states simply that, “employees strive for equity between themselves and other employees.” According to John Stacey Adams, who proposed the theory in 1963, inequity diminishes motivation whereas equity fuels it.
4. Goal Setting
Edwin Locke and Gary Latham’s highly respected goal setting theory of motivation states that specific, easy goals are better for increasing motivation than no goals at all, and specific, difficult goals are the best of all. The theory, originally proposed in 1990, continues to receive significant attention from motivational researchers.
5. Cognitive Evaluation
In 1971, Edward Deci made an important contribution to the field of psychology by turning his focus inward. Whereas most other popular theories of how to motivate employees focus primarily on the acquisition of external rewards (like money, praise, and accolades) the cognitive evaluation theory of motivation posits that in addition to these things, people are motivated by the desire to feel internally fulfilled.
6. Work Design
This theory of motivation outlines five elements critical to positive outcomes in any job (included among those positive outcomes is high motivation). J. Hackman and Greg Oldham, who created the theory in 1976, define these five critical elements as follows:
1. Skill Variety
“The degree to which a job requires a variety of different activities in carrying out the work, involving the use of a number of different skills and talents of a person.”
2. Task Identity
“The degree to which the job requires completion of a whole, identifiable piece of work; that is, doing a job from beginning to end with visible outcome.”
3. Task Significance
“The degree to which the job has a substantial impact on the lives of other people, whether those people are in the immediate organization or in the world at large.”
“The degree to which carrying out the work activities required by the job provides the individual with direct and clear information about the effectiveness of his or her performance.”
“The degree to which the job provides substantial freedom, independence, and discretion to the individual in scheduling the work and in determining the procedure to be used in carrying it out.”
The seventh and final theory around how to motivate employees that Lawrence and Nohria’s integrated in their proposal is the theory of reinforcement, put forth by B.F. Skinner in 1953. This theory is founded on the premise that people are motivated by external rewards and runs on the logic that behavior which is rewarded, will be repeated. Ivan Pavlov is another familiar name famously associated with the reinforcement-based motivation, although Skinner was ultimately responsible for refining it.
Four Factor Theory of Motivation
To develop their four factor theory of how to motivate employees, Lawrence and Nohria examined each of the seven theories discussed above and drew on their similarities to compose a survey. The survey was administered to employees at a financial services ‘giant,’ a leading IT services firm, and 300 Fortune 500 companies.
After analyzing the responses from this survey, Lawrence and Nohria extracted four core factors that together account for the majority of variation in employee motivation. According to their research, the following four drives are primarily responsible for motivation:
1. Drive to Acquire
The drive to acquire is related to the pursuit of external, material goods. People are highly motivated by the promise of earning ‘scarce goods’ — from food and clothing to money to travel and entertainment. Even symbols of status, like a corner office or a C-suite title, feed this drive. When organizations are able to feed the human drive to acquire, employees are incentivized to work hard and become highly motivated as a result.
2. Drive to Bond
Employees’ innate tendency to form peer-to-peer relationships and informal work groups stem from their drive to bond. People crave connection — it’s a basic human need. When employees feel a strong sense of belonging to their local work groups or, even better, loyalty to the entire organization, a tremendous boost in motivation follows.
3. Drive to Comprehend
It’s evident in young children and if you pay attention, it’s evident in employees too: people want to learn. Beyond that, they want to apply that learning and ultimately excel at whatever they’re doing. The pursuit of mastery is engaging, never-ending, and extremely motivating. At work, this curiosity manifests as the drive to comprehend. It pushes people to seek out meaningful, challenging work and inspires them to do it well. Leaders wondering how to motivate employees should be sure to feed their drive to comprehend.
4. Drive to Defend
The fourth and final drive in Lawrence and Nohria’s theory of motivation has to do with the drive to defend. It can also be interpreted as an aversion to threat. Workplaces that fail to provide employees a sense of security see a serious dip in employee motivation as a direct consequence. On the other hand, when employees feel there is a strong sense of justice and equity at work, the barrier from motivation disappears.
4 Ways to Motivate Employees
You know that motivation matters. You have a framework (or several) for understanding what it is, and where it comes from. At last, we deliver on the promise made at the outset of this article: actionable strategies for how to motivate employees.
The four recommendations that follow are inspired by a rich understanding of employee motivation, informed by decades of careful research, and crafted with a pragmatic consideration of the nature of the modern workforce. By implementing these strategies at your own organization, you can translate the theoretical knowledge you’ve acquired in the past two chapters into actual organizational change.
1. Eliminate Job Dissatisfaction
It’s no coincidence that this point comes first. If you don’t address factors that contribute to job dissatisfaction as a precursor to implementing your strategy for how to motivate employees, getting the results you want is going to be an uphill battle — and probably a losing one.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, job dissatisfaction is actually not the antithesis of job satisfaction. According to business management expert Frederick Herzberg, increasing job satisfaction will not necessarily eradicate job dissatisfaction (or vice versa).
Job dissatisfaction is fueled by factors such as:
- Unfair company administration
- Poor working conditions
- Hostile interpersonal relationships
- Insufficient salary
- Low job status
- Job instability
- Unjust company policies
Unsurprisingly, job dissatisfaction has a decidedly negative impact on employee motivation. It worsens the overall employee experience which, of course, diminishes peoples’ will to work. So how can leaders safeguard against factors that drive job dissatisfaction?
To avoid this enemy of employee motivation, educate senior leaders about what toxic management looks like. Be sure that nobody in your organization (including yourself) has fallen into management malpractice. Equip employees with the resources they need to address interpersonal conflict so issues can be resolved as quickly as they arise and never have the chance to escalate. Pay your team fairly. Don’t ask them to settle for subpar working conditions. Keep company policies up to date and leave no room for discrimination or implicit bias to work against your team.
Weeding out these toxic cultural elements before you begin proactively supporting employee motivation is the corporate equivalent of decluttering your home before you redecorate. By removing anti-motivational factors right away, you make yourself significantly more likely to get the results you want as you implement our remaining three recommendations for how to motivate employees.
2. Recognize Processes, Not Results
Based on B.F. Skinner’s reinforcement theory of motivation — which claims that which is reinforced will repeat — it might seem like leaders looking for how to motivate employees should use rewards and recognition as a way to reinforce great end results.
While the instinct to use rewards and recognition as a reinforcer for preferred behavior is right, the best management practice is actually to direct praise at elements of the work process other than end results.
Here’s why: although your employees won’t work on the same exact project day after week after month, they probably do use a repeatable set of high-level strategies to drive success in all kinds of different undertakings — things like time management, attention to detail, proactive communication, etc.
By celebrating the strategies that allow employees to succeed across a diverse set of activities, you’ll end up reinforcing behaviors that employees can perform again and again, regardless of what specific tasks are on their agenda that day.
Identifying the underlying strategies that drive consistent and exemplary results requires deeper thought than simply calling out employees for delivering a great end-product. Below are three repeatable behaviors leaders learning how to motivate employees can use. As the reinforcement theory of motivation explains, recognizing (and rewarding) these behaviors will inspire your employees to continually strive for excellence.
If you truly want employees to live by your company’s core values, it’s a good idea to reinforce them. Whether it’s in a big or a small way, when you see employees living up to your core values, commend them for it.
Teams will always need to collaborate, and the friendlier and more willing those collaborations are, the more productive, frictionless, and successful their outcomes will be. We touched on this point earlier in our discussion of the ‘interactions’ component of informal work groups. By recognizing employees for great collaboration, you’ll motivate them to work more willingly with their peers in the future.
Whether it’s anticipating problems before they arise, proactive project management, or thoughtful timelines, workflows dictate how (and when) employees get the job done. Employees who use smart workflows are more efficient and usually more effective, too. Call out members of your team who design smart workflows. It’s a skill that applies to almost any project, so it is absolutely a behavior you’ll want to see repeated in the future.
The common thread running through all three of these recommendations is that they’re behaviors that can be repeated across a variety of situations. By focusing on these behaviors and others like them as you learn how to motivate employees, you’ll increase the frequency of strategies that drive consistent success. If you want to dig deeper into recognition occasions that will help you get the highest impact from your program, check out our article 5 Employee Recognition Examples to Get the Most from Your Program.
3. Encourage Employees to Try New Things
This suggestion comes straight from motivational expert Ovidiu-Iliuta Dobre. According to Dobre, job growth should be both ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal.’
Vertical job growth is what comes to mind when most people think about career development. It means refining one’s performance at the tasks they love most, becoming an expert, and engaging in the perpetual pursuit of ever-elusive mastery.
Horizontal job growth, on the other hand, is much less commonly considered. It means giving employees opportunities to do things other than their most favorite activities — but with the incredibly valuable tradeoff of more richly varied skills, as well as more interesting day-to-day schedules. One factor often ignored or underestimated by leaders learning how to motivate employees is the importance of task diversity. No matter how much an employee loves writing blog posts or speaking with sales prospects — whatever their preferred task might be — they’ll inevitably tire of doing that and nothing else.
When supporting multi-dimensional job growth, it’s especially important for managers to discuss their approach with employees directly. Guesswork is not your friend when it comes to understanding what tasks employees want to pursue mastery in and which ones they would prefer to just dip their toes into. The best way to address this is by simply asking your employees what they want to spend their time on. This way, you can be certain you’re supporting employees in the way that they want to be supported.
4. Don't Throw Money at Them
We’ll preface this recommendation with a very important disclaimer: it’s absolutely critical to pay your employees enough. Making enough money to live will always be important to employees — but beyond a certain level of comfort, money’s ability to motivate drops off steeply.
It is still possible — and in the right situations, extremely effective — to use alternative forms of external rewards as a strategy for how to motivate employees. Many teams with soaring employee motivation rely on rewards and recognition programs as a more meaningful alternative to cash bonuses.
Rewards and recognition programs allow employees to redeem points for a variety of items listed in a curated company catalog. Instead of turning their cash reward into something banal like groceries or gas, rewards programs let employees redeem points for things like jewelry, or tickets to a local concert while still giving them the freedom to pick a reward that speaks to their personal taste. Non-cash rewards are far more memorable than a wad of cash, and they add a layer of emotional salience without diminishing economic value.
Take a moment to consider how each of these four suggestions for how to motivate employees ties back to the four pillars of motivation discussed in chapter two:
1. Eliminate Job Dissatisfaction
Eliminating job dissatisfaction ties back to the drive to defend by ensuring employees feel their workplace is a fair, safe, and stable environment.
2. Recognize Processes, Not Results
Employee recognition contributes to the drive to belong by making recipients feel seen and appreciated for their efforts. This is especially true when employees are recognized for living up to company core values — shared values are a powerful way to build a sense of community
3. Encourage Employees to Try New Things
Promoting multi-dimensional job growth feeds employees’ drive to comprehend by giving them both opportunities to learn new skills as well as chances to pursue mastery in those tasks that they love the most.
4. Don't Throw Money at Them
Finally, giving employees meaningful rewards feeds their desire to acquire in a very memorable way.
How to Tell if Your Employees Are Motivated
The strategies we’ve outlined for how to motivate employees are far from effortless. Although we believe the weight of their impact makes the investment of time, energy, and financial resources well worth it, you shouldn’t blindly take our word for it.
If you’re working on new strategies for how to motivate employees, any successful program must include a system for tracking whether your efforts have real effects. Motivation is invisible and a lot less straightforward to measure than something like revenue or profit. Nonetheless, if increasing employee motivation is a serious strategic goal for your organization, you need to keep a regular pulse on it as you would with any other strategic initiative. This section is devoted to helping you learn how to do that.
How Psychologists Measure Motivation
We know that you’re a busy corporate leader, not a psychologist who has dedicated their entire career to the nuances of human motivation. The goal of chapter four is to provide you with precise — but also pragmatic — ways to measure motivation at work so you can determine whether your strategies for how to motivate employees are working. Nonetheless, almost all the knowledge in circulation about the nature of human motivation, including how to measure it, has its origins in the field of psychology so it only makes sense to start our discussion there.
Psychologists primarily use two strategies to measure motivation: cognitive-affective measures of motivation, and behavioral measures of motivation.
Cognitive-affective measures are not especially practical to use in an office setting, but they’re fascinating nonetheless. When using cognitive-affective measures to assess human motivation, psychologists look at factors like what elements of a given scenario people remember most saliently, whether their interpretation of ambiguous events skews optimistic, and how visual perception changes based on goals (yes, motivational states have the power to affect something as fundamental as vision).
The majority of the research that looks at motivation through a cognitive-affective lens has been executed in highly controlled laboratory settings. Interesting and informative as it may be, it’s unrealistic for corporate leaders to use these strategies with employees at the office. Behavioral measures offer a far more accessible alternative for getting a read on the state of employee motivation at your organization.
According to motivational psychologists Maferima Touré-Tillery and Ayelet Fishbach, there are three behavioral measures known to be highly correlated with human motivation: speed, performance, and choice. Here’s what is meant by each:
People tend to work more quickly towards goal-related tasks than goal-irrelevant tasks. The one exception is for tasks more concerned with process than product, like listening to music or playing with a puppy (in other words, intrinsically motivating acts).
Performance includes accuracy, persistence, quantity of output, and level of achievement. Put simply, measures of performance ask how well someone did when completing a given task. In general, if someone demonstrates consistently high performance, it’s fair to assume their motivation is high too.
In the face of two competing choices, people tend to make decisions consistent with their motivation. One example given by Touré-Tillery and Fishbach to highlight this behavioral measure refers to a student choosing whether to socialize with friends or study for an exam. Based on her choice, we can infer what her motivation is.
How Employers Can Measure Motivation
These behavioral measures of motivation manifest in a myriad of ways at work, none of which are excessively difficult for leaders to keep track of. Leaders who want to know the impact of their strategies for how to motivate employees should pay attention to:
- Progress on major goals
- Excessive time off
- Careless mistakes and oversights
- Hitting (or missing) deadlines
- Overall quality of work
All of these things tie back to at least one of the three behavioral measures discussed above, if not multiple.
If You Don't Know, Ask
There’s one other strategy leaders can use to keep a pulse on employee motivation, and it’s even more straightforward than behavioral measures: simply ask team members how motivated they feel.
Think back to a time when you were checked out or consistently disengaged at work. Between the way your feet dragged on your commute into the office and the amount of times you checked your personal email while on the job, you probably had a pretty clear idea of how low your motivation was. When it comes to internal states like motivation, external indicators (productivity, performance, etc.) are great clues but nothing quite compares to checking in with the person who is actually experiencing those internal states.
Management experts recommend weekly one-on-one meetings between managers and direct reports. These regularly scheduled sessions are the perfect opportunity to check in with employees about how motivated they are (or aren’t) feeling at work.
It’s normal for motivation to ebb and flow to some degree, so managers need not check in about motivation at every weekly one-on-one. Actually, measuring motivation that frequently may generate unnecessary alarm about what’s simply an off week. Checking in somewhere between once a month and once a quarter will offer the right cadence for managers to gauge general trends in employee motivation without getting too caught up in its natural fluctuation. Additionally, incorporating conversations about motivation into one-on-one meetings gives employees the chance to voice their input about leadership’s approach to how to motivate employees.
Whichever measure, or combination of measures, you use to track the state of employee motivation at your organization, be sure to record your results over time. This will help paint a complete picture of how effective you’ve been in learning how to motivate employees.
The Secret to Maintaining High Employee Motivation
There’s a fairly passive way to fuel employee motivation, and companies with the most engaged, driven, and hardworking teams all know it to be a critical tool for how to motivate employees. This super-strategy works around the clock to drive employee motivation, and its impact can hardly be overstated. Can you guess what it is?
After decades of being brushed aside as a nice-to-have, the myth that company culture doesn’t matter has finally begun to fall. The truth is, all companies have culture and its quality has a heavy influence on a myriad of critical business outcomes, among them employee motivation. Amazing culture helps companies attract and retain top talent, contributes to a better overall brand identity, and has been shown time and again to drive profits up. Thankfully, most modern corporate leaders now acknowledge the very real value that amazing company culture has on a business and are investing in it accordingly.
But how do organizations go about actually building an outstanding company culture? It’s a concept as slippery as employee motivation, and for leaders who normally think in numbers and data, it can be comparably perplexing to tackle strategically. In a happy coincidence, many of the strategies we outlined to boost employee motivation also come highly recommended as ways to improve company culture.
For example, value-based employee recognition programs — which were one of our four key strategies for how to motivate employees — are one of the most effective, customizable tools for building a strong company culture. They help infuse the workplace with a sense of meaning, foster connection and collaboration among peers, and keep positive communication in constant flow. Just as these outcomes contribute to building a more motivated workforce, they contribute to building a stronger company culture as well.
As company culture improves, employees become increasingly motivated to work. The more motivated employees are, the better your culture will feel, and in the best sort of win-win scenario the two rise in tandem.
With all this in mind, you’re probably left with the same thought that inspired us to write this article in the first place: could learning how to motivate employees be the secret to unlocking your organization’s full potential?
There’s only one way to find out ...