What Motivates an Employee?

18th August 2015

As a manager or business owner, you know that your employees are your most valuable resources and when they aren’t motivated they become less productive, less creative, and less of an asset to your company; motivation is key.

However, getting people to do their best work, consistently and unerringly, is a manager’s most enduring and elusive challenge. So how do you get an employee to do what you want? Ask them? Show them?Instruct them? Give them a monetary
incentive?

First things first, when navigating the tricky terrain of motivating your workforce, watch out for a few common pitfalls and misplaced motivational tools; let’s remind ourselves what doesn’t work:

“Reducing time spent at work to make people feel more motivated and work more efficiently when they are there, or using time off as an incentive.”

No. The truth is, motivated people spend more time at work, not less.

“Spiralling wage increases motivate employees.”

Money is only one factor in motivation, typically ranking below recognition and praise. Salary increases and bonuses simply motivate employees to seek out the next wage increase. and not necessarily in-house if the climate and culture is not meeting their motivational needs.

“Employee motivation isresponsive to fringe benefits.”

Perhaps, in times gone by fringe benefits might have made a job more desirable and an employee happier and more motivated, but most benefits are in-fact now rights, 6 day weeks, 10 hour days are no longer acceptable, they are exploitation, and extended medical cover is a basic decency. So unless the ante is constantly upped the psychological reaction is that the company is stuck in backwards-looking ways.

“Sharing bad news with employees will demotivate them.”

In fact, being left in the dark will demotivate them when, inevitably, bad news gets out. So, with that in mind, what really, actually motivates an employee? The Harvard Business Review’s ‘“One More Time: How do you Motivate Employees?” shares
research which identifies a number of factors which ultimately motivate and satisfy employees, and those which cause the most dissatisfaction. Their studies showed that achievement​, recognition, responsibility ​and advancement​ were by far the most common contributors to employee motivation and satisfaction, whilst supervision, work conditions,​ relationships with supervisors​ and poor company policy and administration (by far)​ were the biggest contributors to dissatisfaction and demotivation.

Red Letter Days for Business’ also echoed these contributing factors following a survey on employee motivation which showed that employees felt they were most motivated by: control over their work​, clear goals and objectives​, managers that inspire them​, and rewards systems that included cash bonuses​, but, more frequently, just a simple ‘thank you’ from a manager.

More recently, research in neuroscience, biology and evolutionary psychology has taken this a step further, and begun to examine, through an understanding of the human brain, the way in which we are motivated by four basic drives;to acquire,​to bond​, to comprehend​and to defend​. So how can managers use this knowledge to motivate their workforce and, in turn, improve corporate performance?

The drive to acquire;​ essentially this is the need to acquire goods such as food, clothing, housing and money, as well as experiences such as travel and entertainment, and improving social status. This is most easily satisfied by a company’s reward system and the way in which management discriminates between good and poor performers, rewarding the most productive or skilled employees and giving them the best opportunities for advancement.

The drive to bond;​ at work, this drive is responsible for the boost in motivation employees feel when they have a sense of belonging and pride at their being part of this ‘tribe’. In parallel, this accounts for the loss of morale when an employee feels betrayed by their company. Meeting this need comes down to an organisation’s culture; engendering a strong sense of camaraderie and promoting teamwork, collaboration, transparency and friendship. For management this could entail supportive practices promoting wellbeing; for example, tracking patterns of sickness to enable workplace support, open door policies and clear and open lines of communication between colleagues as well as supervisors and their teams.

The drive to comprehend​; in the workplace, this relates to the challenge posed by a role or job, enabling employees to grow and learn whilst making a recognised and meaningful contribution. Talented employees who don’t find their role challenging, or don’t receive recognition for their contribution will often migrate to other businesses.

The drive to defend;​it is human nature to defend ourselves; our property, accomplishments, ideas and beliefs, and fulfilling this drive leads to feelings to security and confidence, rather than fear and resentment. This drive is the reason that employees can be very resistant to change which is a direct challenge to their security. In the workplace, fair, trustworthy and transparent processes for performance management and resource allocation can help meet this need, as well as clear objectives and role perimeters based around periodic appraisals and ongoing (supportive) monitoring and feedback.

Research also showed that in addition to these four drives, employee’s perceptions of their immediate managers rather than their company as a whole are equally important; their evaluations of their supervisor’s ability to keep them motivated in the face of company policy and administration matter as much as their boss’ ability to fulfill their four drives. To achieve this, managers need to have clear and effective processes for administration and tasks such as holiday management, to ensure that this area, which is often named as the most frustrating for employees, runs as smoothly, fairly and efficiently as possible.

Of course, these behaviourist approaches can be tricky to implement in practice, but with the right balance and an individual approach it can result in a more satisfied, more motivated workforce.

Simple really, right?