Motivation is different for everybody—especially among today’s knowledge workers.
Treating people like rats in a maze, where everyone is given the same incentive for achieving various tasks, may have worked a hundred years ago when workers were more task-oriented. But the workplace today, as well as the work itself, is far more complex.
However, when done right, it can change your competitive landscape significantly. The question is: “What do managers need to do to motivate and engage today’s knowledge workers?”
In his just-released book, “Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations,” famed behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely shows us how understanding intrinsic and extrinsic motivators that shape human behavior can “get to the heart of motivation.”
Motivation Comes From Connection
In his book, Ariely posits that motivation is driven by having a connectedness to an organization and being involved in meaningful work, even if it’s challenging or painful. His research attests that meaningful work might not necessarily make someone happy, but it can give a person a sense of “purpose, value and impact—of being involved in something bigger than themselves.”
Ariely goes on to say that, “We’re motivated by meaning and connection because their effects extend beyond ourselves, beyond our social circle, and maybe even beyond our existence.”
Increasing motivation can be as simple as acknowledging or recognizing work well done, just as ignoring or devaluing work can have the opposite effect. It might even have a detrimental effect, causing people to work with minimum effort or even look for another job.
Gallup research shows that a little over 30% of U.S. workers are engaged on the job. That means almost 70% are disengaged, and the problem has been getting worse by two percent each year since 2000.
Managers who “may be systematically underestimating the importance of meaning at work,” as Ariely states, can actually be demotivating workers. In one example, Ariely points to the detrimental effect on engineers when their manager pulled the plug on a big project without warning or explanation—it sent the message that the work had had no meaning.
As a result, the engineers began to disengage from the next project by not putting in extra effort, leaving early, coming in late and even leaving the company altogether.
Without connectedness, motivation suffers. But how can managers increase motivation?
Identity Increases Motivation
Ariely’s research demonstrates that people are “strongly motivated by identity, the need for recognition, a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of creation.” The more vested a person can be in the design and outcome of a project, the higher the feeling of having a purpose, meaning and connectedness to the organization. But these intrinsic motivators are only one piece of the puzzle.
You may remember Alec Baldwin in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross admonishing his sales team with the mantra, “ABC. Always Be Closing.”
This persistent misconception in our culture imbues the, as Ariely puts it, “mistaken belief that external motivations, such as threats, are crucial ingredients in the recipe for inspiring hard work.” Not so.
Motivating people is a complicated business and requires the blending of intrinsic (praise, camaraderie) and extrinsic (salaries, bonuses, gifts) motivators. So what are the best extrinsic rewards to positively motivate people?
Awards and Motivation
Because motivation is so vast and individual-centric, no experiment could answer this question, but through the study of human behavior, we can come to understand the importance of internal and external motivators.
In an experiment with four groups of Intel employees, an incentive was offered to see which one would be more motivating. With one control group (no incentive), the incentives included money, pizza vouchers and compliments. Cash performed the worst.
The compliment incentive resulted in the highest performance with the pizza voucher falling somewhere in between. It should be noted that the effect of the incentives was not long lasting.
This is why it’s important to offer a blend of motivators to raise performance and engagement levels.
As Ariely writes, “the more a company can offer employees an opportunity for meaning and connections, the harder those employees are likely to work and the more enduring their loyalty is likely to be.”
Culture’s Impact on Loyalty
Managers can affect connectedness and loyalty by creating a culture that demonstrates its commitment to employees.
Offering long-term investments in employees such as education, training, health benefits, career pathing and professional development as well as investing in their wellbeing and personal growth will have positive and long-lasting impact.
Creating a culture of recognition, trust and goodwill results in higher engagement and the feeling of autonomy for employees—and ultimately, connectedness to the organization.
“The exchange of trust and goodwill [between an organization and its employees] is an important and inherent part of human motivation,” writes Ariely.
Killing human motivation happens when “we ignore, criticize, disregard or destroy the work of others.” Human beings are driven by intangible and tangible motivators, emotional reactions, as well as social and environmental conditions.
People need to be recognized for a job well done while having a sense of ownership and accomplishment. People want meaningful work that contributes value to the goals of the organization—and will work harder if they have it. People need to feel connected to an organization through an exchange of trust and goodwill—and will be more engaged if this is felt.
According to Ariely, “To motivate others successfully, we need to provide a sense of connection and meaning—remembering that meaning is not always synonymous with personal happiness.”
Finding the right blend of internal and external motivators, creating a culture of recognition, trust and goodwill is key to moving an organization forward. Providing opportunities for employees to have purpose, mastery and autonomy will earn organizations the loyalty of their employees while helping them be more productive and engaged at work.
It’s truly a win-win situation.
Get Your Copy of Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations
While you’re there, check out his other books: