What Really Motivates Employees

Keeping your employees motivated and engaged in their work is no small task.  On the one hand, you've probably heard many times that "it's not about the money."  On the other hand, your employees are probably telling you that it is, in fact, very much about the money.  That doesn't even cover the fact that you have little or no say over the money, anyway, so whether or not it motivates employees seems moot.  What's a front-line manager to do?!

The reason the information on employee motivation is so confusing is that people try to oversimplify something that isn't simple.  There is a difference between things that motivate and things that demotivate, and there is a difference between what employees want at a subconscious level and what they actually ask for.  Once we disentangle these things, it becomes much easier to figure out where to start.  

The Two-Factor Theory: a more helpful way to think about employee motivation

There are a lot of different theories about employee motivation, and you could spend weeks reading excellent books to figure out how to create a motivating environment for your team.  However, the most helpful model I have encountered is actually the Two-Factor Theory, published in 1959 by Frederick Herzberg.   Even though the work environment has changed quite a bit since the 1950’s, Herzberg’s research still holds true and is supported by more recent studies.  This model, also called the Motivator-Hygiene Theory, divides key aspects of an employee’s job experience into two categories:

  • Hygiene factors: these are things that can demotivate if they are deficient, but won’t motivate on their own.  You can think of these as the baseline for employee motivation.  Examples include compensation (base salary), benefits, job security, working conditions, and policies.
  • Motivating factors: these are things that can motivate employees to higher level of performance.  Examples include recognition, sense of achievement, meaningful responsibility, opportunities for leaning and growth, challenging work, and work relationships.

What’s helpful about this model is that it gets us to think about dissatisfaction and motivation separately.  It also reminds us that employee perception is a huge component of motivation.  While you might not be able to change much about the hygiene factors, you can help your employees to be more aware of the positive aspects of the job that have probably become invisible to them over time.

Hygiene factors: necessary but not sufficient for motivating employees

The hygiene factors are often determined at the organizational level, so there isn’t a lot you can do, at least in the short term, to change them.  However, you can mitigate them.  Since hygiene factors can demotivate if insufficient, you may want to start by making sure you’ve done what you can to improve them.

  • Compensation (base salary): Make sure that your employees’ salaries are where they should be relative to market benchmarks (taking into consideration your company’s compensation philosophy) and relative to each other.  Your HR department should be able to help you with this. 
  • Benefits: Educate yourself to ensure that you are aware of all of the benefits available to your employees, and then make sure they are aware of them as well.  Some companies tell their employees the dollar value of their contribution to the employees’ benefits – would that be appropriate for your team?
  • Job security: Capitalize on opportunities to highlight your employees’ work when speaking with higher-ups.  Keep an ear to the ground so that you can make sure that your team’s work is always relevant to the strategic direction of the organization.  You can’t guarantee that your employees’ jobs are secure, but it’s still possible to make it less likely that they would be viewed as expendable.
  • Policies and their administration: Shelter your employees as much as you can from annoying red tape and bureaucratic processes that don’t add value.  Your job as a manager is to remove obstacles, and this is a surprisingly fruitful place to concentrate your efforts. 
  • Working conditions and physical environment:  While you can’t change the office, you can provide your employees with choices to help them shape the environment according to what works best for them.  Would small modifications to their desk or work station make things more comfortable?  Could they work from home one or more days per week?  Can they personalize their workspace in some way, either to make it more “homey” or to fit their unique workflow?

Even though you can’t drastically change organizational policies (at least not right away), there is still a lot you can do as a manager to improve the hygiene factors of your employees’ jobs.  Who knows- maybe your efforts will mean more to them than changes in organizational policies!

Motivating factors: what really motivates employees to do their best work

The other helpful thing is that most hygiene factors are not under your control as a manager, but almost all the motivating factors are.  We tend to focus a lot on raises and promotions because that’s what employees often are asking for, and that’s frustrating because many times you can’t give the employee what you would like to give them.  It’s possible that addressing an employee’s primary motivating factor might motivate them even more than an increase in salary or status.  (That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to give them raises and promotions – this is a workaround for when you can’t.)  While your organization’s policies and budget might limit your options in some areas, there is still a lot you can do to provide a motivating environment for your team.

  • Recognition: This is probably the area where employees vary most in terms of what they find rewarding and what they find uncomfortable, so tread carefully.  Some employees might really appreciate a written thank-you to acknowledge a significant contribution (perhaps from your boss or your boss’s boss), where others might want something more public in front of the rest of the team.  Make sure you know what each of your team members prefers, ideally before the opportunity to recognize them arises.
  • Sense of achievement: This will sound strange, but status/progress reports could actually be motivating.  For more behind why and how this works, you can read the Progress Principle, but in short, employees need to feel a sense of progress and that their efforts matter.  One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to get them to tell you what they’ve done, ideally in writing.  Don’t make it burdensome, and let them have a say in the format. 
  • Meaningful responsibility: Give employees a significant piece of work that they can safely own, and allow them as much autonomy as their experience and skills warrant.  Even small projects can be motivating if the employee feels they can put their own stamp on it, or at a minimum put it on their resume. 
  • Opportunities for learning and growth:  Find ways for your employees to build skills that are meaningful to them.  This could mean allowing them to go to classes or conferences, but it could also mean giving them permission to spend a certain amount of time at work completing a self-paced course or reading up on a particular topic. 
  • Challenging work: Too often, the reward for doing great work is to have to keep doing that same thing.  Can you mix things up a bit?  Even just shifting tasks around the team so that people get variety can help.  Even better is if you can give them stretch assignments, as long as the assignments stretch them in the way they actually want to be stretched. 
  • Work relationships and feeling part of a team: Provide opportunities for the team to interact informally.  This could be a quarterly team lunch, a surprise afternoon treat in the break room one day (ideally something messy that they can’t eat at their desks, like donuts or ice cream), or a team happy hour.  Another strategy is to take on a fun project together such as planning the office holiday party, but be careful not to burden already stressed employees. 

(Note: this assumes that the employees in question are performing well – these strategies probably don’t make sense for employees who are struggling with the basic requirements of their job at the moment.)

It’s important to figure out what will resonate most for each employee, though, as each person is different.  What makes this tricky is that sometimes the employees themselves aren’t entirely sure what motivates them.   You can get around this by asking them for examples of times when they were really happy in their work or job, and what specifically about the situation made it positive for them.

These are just some starting points to get you thinking.  This is a great topic to discuss with your team, either one-on-one or in a team meeting.  It’s also worth thinking about your own motivation as well and what might improve it.  The more enthused you are about the work, the more meaningful it will be for your employees as well.

Related resources

  • The Two-Factor Theory (wikipedia summary)
  • Drive, by Dan Pink (book or TED talk - both are great)
  • 12: The Elements of Great Managers, by James K. Harter and Rodd Wagner (book)
  • Your Brain at Work, by David Rock (book)
  • Multipliers, by Liz Wiseman (book or Harvard Business Review article)

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