What Motivates Workers? Most Employers Seem to Guess Wrong

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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.

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.

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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.


3 Comments on “What Motivates Workers? Most Employers Seem to Guess Wrong

  1. I agree with a lot of what you say in this post. In my opinion, the sense of accomplishment motivates employees most for the long-term. Money may be a decent short-term motivator, but that motivation only sticks for so long…aka, once the reward is met. True motivation needs to come from within.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with the three simply stated but enormously effective and meaningful ways to motivate employees.

    #1- Most people, even if they are not fond of there job, try hard to do well at their tasks because it brings internal satisfaction. When someone else- especially a supervisor or manager- recognizes it and validates the effort.

    #2 Knowing what you are working on has some benefit to someone or something and completing a part of it gives a sense of satisfaction and belonging.

    #3 Seeing the steps being made towards a greater goal increases both the motivation to do the job and makes it easier to handle by segmenting it in the mind therefore allowing greater effort to be put into the tasks at hand.

    Excellent article and advice that anyone who has employees working under or for them would greatly benefit from.

  3. Seems weird that so many still think money is a true motivator when there is so much evidence to the contrary. The great thing about recognition is that it can be simple as a “thank you” or “great work”, just as long as the contribution is acknowledged. Moreso that grand gestures from leaders (which are certainly welcome) peer-to-peer recognition also has powerful effects. Imagine a team that builds each other up and rather than tearing each other down.

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