Employee Motivation Fundamentals

What motivates employees?
The truth comes in 3 simple steps

Understanding the fundamentals of employee motivation is surprisingly simple, but you will be misleaded if you limit yourself to only asking this short question. Rather you’d need to ask the full question instead:

“What motivates MY employees so they can do THEIR job extremely well”

This is the real question and - if you answer it in the right order – the recipe for motivating employees successfully. Let’s walk you through the 3 single steps.


First step:
Find out about the nature of your employees’ tasks

Complex or repetitive - What tasks have to be done primarily?

Identifying the type of tasks your co-workers have to perform on a regular basis is a great way to start. Do they perform a lot of complex tasks requiring a huge amount of cognitive skill, case-by-case decision-making and innovative thinking? Or do they rather perform primarily repetitive, non-complex, linear tasks? The difference is important.

Classic (monetary) rewards are rewards for linear tasks – if you do this, then you get that. When people know they can get more when they produce more output (Attention! This must not be equal to achieving a certain goal) and when the way to achieving this output is linear (and by linear we mean there is a linear relationship between the work you put in and the result you get), more money can really make people perform better. But this equation is not true in the first case, i.e. when cognitive, highly complex tasks need to be performed. Here, more (linear) input doesn’t necessarily lead to a better performance – and therefore linear rewards can even be demotivating! Dan Pink explained this brilliantly and with a lot of humor in his TED talk (it’s worth the time to watch):

Dan Pink’s explanation on the puzzle of motivation

For repetitive, non-complex tasks, classic linear (monetary) rewards work well. For non-linear, complex tasks – as you would expect – linear rewards do not work. Figure this out first.


Second step:
Pay attention to the generational split

Your workforce is made of people – Do you know who needs what?

Don’t think you can motivate a 20-year old digital native who you’ve just hired the same you can your 55-year old long-term employee and Head of Sales. Yes, have a closer look at your generational split. Don’t be too rigid, but different generations have different expectations regarding their jobs. The 20-year old newbie is led by her desire to feel socially included and recognized for her effort to become better at her job. She seeks mastery. The 55-year old Head of Sales, on the contrary, is also engaged by his desire for autonomy at work (and maybe the bigger purpose of doing it).

There is also a different perception between generations of how frequent the feedback should be. Millenials require feedback more often than seasoned employees which means Millenials will sooner get demotivated if they don’t receive feedback on a regular basis.

If your employees perform complex, non-repetitive tasks (as most of us do today), get an idea of the generational split in your company next. Different generations respond differently to motivational triggers for such tasks, which are autonomy, mastery and purpose.


Third step:
Action on these insights

Resolve the mismatch between what science knows and what businesses do (Dan Pink)

While a lot of Human Resources departments would like to increase the performance of their employees, too few companies have approached the question above in this specific order and detail.

So they:

  • don’t know if their workforce is doing mostly repetitive or cognitive work (or they are reluctant to the fact)
  • they have no idea of the motivational mindset of different generations
  • they are unaware of the fact that different generations seek feedback of varying frequency, form, or structure.

The result is tragic.
For years research from Gallup, Bersin and others has revealed that a large majority of people is not engaged in their jobs - although businesses do invest a lot of money. But too many companies rely on carrot-and-stick rewards (which work for repetitive tasks) when in fact their workers perform a lot of complex tasks and vice versa. They use the same programs for seasoned and young workers without making the necessary differentiation.

All this can be prevented if you approach the challenge systematically:

Type of tasks Motivational triggers Usually in place in firms Do they work?
Repetitive tasks Monetary rewards & bonuses “carrot-and-stick” rewards “if-then” rewards Bonus systems & programs, monetary rewards, gift cards, etc. yes
Non-repetitive tasks requiring cognitive skill Autonomy: trusting the employee that he/she can fulfill the task autonomously
Mastery: Allowing the employee to become better at what he/she is doing
Purpose:  recognizing that the employee performs a task for a higher cause

→ Recognition of the employee’s single effort by someone he/she values (coworkers, supervisors, etc.)
Bonus systems & programs, monetary rewards, gift cards, etc.
Recognition Platforms and programs which value the effort

Take away:
Don’t take the shortcut. Confront the real problem if you want to have success.

See also:

False Friends: Employee Recognition, Incentives & Rewards

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