What Motivates Employees: Do You Ever Wonder “Why” They Work?

It’s interesting to me how often themes seem to converge across the various news and blog sources I follow. Today is one example – “Why” seemed to crop up rather frequently.

Here are just three examples.

Why am I here?

From a perennial favorite of mine, the Blanchard Leader Chat blog, is this post on what motivates you at work. I was most fascinated by the list author David Witt started the post with – a list for meeting attendees on “why are you here?” These were the possible answers (quoting):

  1. I am not really here. (Well, maybe my body is, but my mind is elsewhere.)
  2. I am being paid to be here. (And if I wasn’t being paid—or receiving some other type of reward—I wouldn’t be here.)
  3. I have to be here; I’d be afraid of what might happen if I wasn’t.
  4. Being here aligns with my values and will help me and my organization reach important goals.
  5. Being here resonates with me; I feel it could make an important difference to others in my organization and/or help me fulfill a meaningful purpose.
  6. I am inherently interested in being here; it is fun for me.

If you notice, each of the answers gets at a different level of motivation, including extrinsic (I have to be here to get paid, or, I’m just going through the motions) and intrinsic (I want to be here for several reasons).

Broadening this beyond just meetings, it’s important for any good leader or manager to pay attention to why their team members come to work every day. Why do they contribute? Do they need extrinsic motivation or are they already intrinsically motivated?

What could you do to help those needing extrinsic motivation to move into the intrinsic group? Could you make the core values of the organization real to them so they are more in alignment with personal values?

Why should I care?

From Forbes, comes this article questioning the role that open workspaces and perks like foosball tables and free soda play in employee engagement. As the author says:

When companies like the one I visited recently tell me their workplace culture and trendy furniture builds employee engagement, I try to make them see that they’re focusing on the wrong part of the equation. They’re focusing on what, not why. What can tell you a lot about a company, but it’s why that tells you it’s a good company to work with.”

She goes on to pose five important “why” questions employees ask, including the one I started this post with:

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  1. Why am I here?
  2. Why should I trust your leadership?
  3. Why should I be loyal to your company?
  4. Why don’t you communicate your company values?
  5. Why aren’t you clear about the rewards of working in this company?

You will be far better served helping employees frame and answer these questions than leaving it up to chance and circumstance. Give them reasons to understand your core values in relation to their daily work. Help them connect living those values with appropriate recognition and reward.

Why should I change?

Finally, from Envisia Learning comes this introduction (and free download offer) to Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It.

I’ll be looking into the book myself in coming weeks, but I’m intrigued by the methods the authors suggest of helping employees understand why they should change instead of merely informing employees of change. The “Enlighten, Encourage, Enable” method briefly outlined in this post makes sense as an approach to change management.

What are the “Why” questions you are regularly asked or do you ask yourself?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.


4 Comments on “What Motivates Employees: Do You Ever Wonder “Why” They Work?

  1. Great blogpost and good to read. One question though; I’m a great fan of the appreciative inquiry and therefore trying to use as much positive phrases as possible. It strikes me to see you twice use a negative phrased question (5 important “why” questions). Is it possible to rephrase them?

  2. Just an FYI. That free download offer was only valid for 48 hours. It’s now closed. Good thoughts.

    My favorite at the moment is “Why are you afraid to make a decision?”

  3. Very thought-provoking post, Derek. And if you’re an employer having trouble with employee engagement and retention, it might be good for you to ask yourself the questions you suggested.

  4. Derek, very insightful post. I particularly enjoyed the section on the different levels of motivation. Obviously, there are multiple reasons why employees come to work everyday, but it’s the job of the manager to hire, train, and then mentor the best employees so that this motivation is on par with the company values. After all, you don’t want an employee to hang around for the sake of hanging around. You want an employee who will bring something (and then some) to the table and who believes in the company cause. Without this sort of hands-on mentorship, you may always run into motivational issues.

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