What Motivates Workers? Most Employers Seem to Guess Wrong

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To Our Readers: This week, TLNT is continuing our annual tradition by counting down the 35 most popular posts of this past year. This is No. 15. Our regular content will return Wednesday January 2, 2013.


What motivates us at work is ultimately a very personal and individual topic, though generalities do apply.

That’s why I get a chuckle out of research study after research study showing we nearly always guess incorrectly what would motivate others.

Case in point, research out of Duke University and George Mason University discussed on the Blanchard LeaderChat blog:

In research from Duke University subjects were asked to rate what motivates them individually, and what motivates peers and superiors at different levels in an organization. In most cases, the subjects rated their peers and superiors as more interested in external incentives than they said was true for themselves.

Funny thing is, senior executives make the same mistake when trying to identify what motivates their direct reports.  In separate research, Facer points to studies at George Mason University where executives emphasize external factors such as compensation, job security, and promotions while employees point to inherent factors such as interesting work, being appreciated for making meaningful contributions, and a feeling of being involved in decisions.

The assumed focus on purely external motivators keeps executives and employees looking in the wrong places when trying to identify cures to the lingering lack of engagement in today’s workplaces.”

The bottom line is as simple as this: we like to assume throwing money at people will motivate them, but we are wrong. Yes, people need to be paid fairly and compensated well for the work they do and the value they bring to the organization. But after a point, cash doesn’t motivate or engage us in our work.

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Steve Tobak weighed in on this discussion on CBS Moneywatch with this list of top 10 ways to motivate and retain staffand not a single one of them has anything to do with compensation structure.

What does motivate?

  1. Recognition for work well done.
  2. A sense of accomplishment and delivery of work that is meaningful within the bigger picture.
  3. Knowledge of progress made.

If you want to motivate and engage your staff, recognize them for meaningful work and progress. Let peers recognize each other for the same as well.

How does your organization primarily try to motivate employees?

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.


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