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Work Motivation: How to Keep Your People Inspired

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The Benefits of Work Motivation

The Downward Spiral of Low Motivation

Types of Work Motivation

Losing Motivation

Improving Motivation in the Workplace

We have all been in that zone. You’re busy with work and a deadline is approaching; you feel sharp, productive, and energized. You’re enjoying the work itself and feeling great about how much progress you’re making. We call this mental state flow: where an individual is completely immersed in their energized focus and enjoyment of an activity. “Motivation” feels almost beside the point – our interaction with the work itself motivates.

Unfortunately, we’ve also all experienced the opposite feeling when we’re doing something we don’t enjoy. Time drags on, and you’re keenly aware of it. You’re not any closer to finishing the task. Maybe you’re finding it hard to get started or dreading the next step. 

What is different in these two descriptions? It’s a factor of how motivated we feel. When we feel motivated, we give our best effort and go the extra mile. 

The concept of motivation has a central position across much of the field of psychology. Motivation is about our choices: where we expend energy and how we prioritize. These choices are especially relevant in the world of work. Being highly-motivated at work means we try harder to do our best. Sometimes we are motivated by external factors such as how much we’re being paid or whether we receive recognition from a supervisor. Other times, we are motivated by internal factors such as how much we enjoy what we’re doing or how important we believe the work is for the company.

Work motivation has a direct impact on our performance. Organizational psychologists have long noted that an employee’s performance is impacted both by their ability to do the work and by their motivation to succeed. This relationship is often expressed as the equation:

MOTIVATION X ABILITY = PERFORMANCE

In other words, it’s not enough to have the skills to do your job; you have to be motivated to put your skills to work. This is even more important when the tasks are difficult or the work needed is ambiguous because the needs and conditions are changing. Motivation helps to propel us through challenges and overcome doubt and uncertainty on new tasks.  

The Benefits of Work Motivation

Given the benefits of having a highly motivated workforce and the number of challenges that so many people are facing right now, it’s in a company’s best interest to maximize their employees’ motivation.  Improving work motivation has a number of benefits, including these top five outcomes:

  1. Increased performance: As mentioned, motivated employees put forth their best effort and generally perform at higher levels. Specifically, we can differentiate between a person’s maximal performance and their typical performance. When individuals are motivated, there is very little difference between the two: they regularly perform to the best of their abilities. But when motivation is low, employees rarely demonstrate their maximal performance.
  2. Increased employee engagement: Higher levels of motivation generally translate into employees who are more highly engaged with their work and with the organization. These higher levels of engagement mean that companies will see decreased turnover and absenteeism, healthier relationships among coworkers, and improved customer service. 
  3. Increased creativity, innovation, and problem solving: Employees who are motivated have been found to exhibit higher levels of creativity and innovation and are better problem-solvers.  Because they work with greater passion and feel a connection to the work they’re doing, they put more energy into these activities and the outcomes improve. In the face of challenges, motivated employees  eagerly take on new tools, knowledge or behaviors, are creative and flexible in looking for workarounds, and get past inconveniences more readily.
  4. Increased job satisfaction: Employees who demonstrate higher levels of motivation also report higher levels of job satisfaction. Employees who are more satisfied are more efficient and productive and care more about what they’re doing. 
  5. Increased employee wellbeing: Employees who are motivated report higher states of wellbeing. When they are energized and excited to do their work, their physical and mental health improve. In fact, this relationship becomes cyclical: higher motivation leads to an increased sense of wellbeing, and improving employee wellbeing leads to higher levels of motivation. 

The Downward Spiral of Low Motivation

Given the benefits of having motivated team members, it might seem obvious that work motivation is an important lever for managers and motivating others is a key leadership skill. Let’s consider for a moment the consequences of a demotivated workplace. In addition to losing the benefits listed above, there are other costs. 

  1. Decreased performance. This hurts in the present, leading to higher costs, lower quality, and missed revenue opportunities. It also hurts in the longer term, because companies with unmotivated employees will be less able to respond to changing conditions, will have a less adaptable and future-ready workforce, and less well-positioned for future opportunities.

  2. Lower employee engagement, leading to higher turnover, absenteeism, decreased customer satisfaction, and potentially increased employee conflicts and incidents.

  3. Reduced innovation and creativity. As a result of mediocre solutions and limited vision, fewer interesting opportunities or challenges will emerge, further narrowing the innovative and creative potential of the organization.

  4. Lower job satisfaction which hurts recruiting and retention and can lead to safety and quality issues.

  5. Just as motivation can be contagious, so can the lack of motivation. A few unmotivated team members, if left unaddressed, can demotivate others around them who start to question themselves for working so hard or question the ability of the team to deliver impact with such low commitment.

Types of Work Motivation

There are numerous theories of motivation across the field of psychology and several that specifically relate to the psychology of the workplace. We’ll explore two such theories of motivation because they can help us understand what employees are experiencing. 

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation:

In its simplest definition, intrinsic motivation refers to being motivated to work hard simply because you enjoy the activity. The work is its own reward. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to doing work for a reward other  than the joy, learning or meaning that comes from doing the work itself. Anything we receive for doing work can be considered an extrinsic motivator. This could include compensation, bonuses, privileges, as well as awards, recognition, praise from a supervisor, and even less tangible status . 

The differentiation between intrinsic and extrinsic factors are important because of their impact on performance. People tend to perform better when they’re intrinsically motivated because they care deeply about the activity, are more likely to lose themselves in the work, and experience a state of flow. 

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Model:

Frederick Herzberg’s Two-Factor Model describes the factors that lead to higher motivation and job satisfaction as distinct from those that lead to lower motivation and job dissatisfaction. For example, the factors that lead to higher motivation include a sense of achievement, recognition from others, and opportunities for advancement. When these factors are present, we feel more motivated to do our best work. In fact, Herzberg called these factors Motivators and demonstrated their contribution to job satisfaction.

On the other hand, Herzberg contrasted these Motivators with what he called Hygiene Factors: those features that needed to be present in order to avoid job dissatisfaction. Hygiene Factors include safe working conditions, adequate compensation, fair company policies, and high-quality supervision. While the presence of these Hygiene Factors don’t lead to higher levels of motivation, research has indicated that the absence of them certainly leads to lower levels of motivation.

Understanding Herzberg’s Model helps us think through the aspects of the workplace that we need to ensure are present to meet basic needs (Hygiene Factors) while striving for those factors that lead to feelings of growth and achievement (Motivators.) 

Losing Motivation

While part of learning to manage people is learning how to motivate resistant employees to do what you need, motivation is often not about laziness or work ethic. At times, even the hardest working employees can lose their motivation. 

In fact maybe you’ve found yourself feeling less motivated than usual recently. This year has brought challenges that most of us have never seen before. We’re interacting with coworkers through video screens, helping our children with online school, missing relatives and friends we aren’t seeing regularly, and worrying about health and finances more often. It’s not surprising, then, that these stressors have led many employees to feel more overwhelmed and less motivated to do their best work. While they still put in their time, they are contributing less energy and passion. Besides exhaustion and overwhelm, what causes good, formerly-motivated  employees to lose their drive? 

  • Lack of impact, purpose or meaning. Many employees will work very hard if they believe they are making a difference, whether to their colleagues, to the company, or the customer or the world. If time passes and an expected impact doesn’t materialize or the impact disappears, motivation might fade as well.
  • Disempowerment, restrictive conditions. In the performance equation, above, motivation is a separate factor from ability. In reality, if my ability to do something decreases significantly -- for example from loss of resources, tighter timelines, or new policies that prevent collaborating with customers -- that also affects motivation. 
  • Mastery / lack of growth. Many highly talented employees enjoy challenging themselves and learning rapidly, especially if the learning makes them more relevant and accomplished in a way that positions them to achieve professional aspirations. The harder the quest, the more motivated they are. If they find themselves in a situation where they are no longer being stretched – perhaps because the company is successful and they are in a maintenance part of the organization – they may miss the constant learning and become significantly less motivated. 
  • Negative work conditions. Decreased sense of connection to the organization or teammates and a lack of belonging can take the air out of motivation. This type of damage might result from getting a new manager, other changes to team dynamics that result in unproductive friction or loss of psychological safety, or from an unsatisfactory resolution to an incident, especially if it violates the employee’s core values.  
  • Fear or threat. Fear can be a powerful motivator in the moment, but it is hard to sustain. It tends to shut us down into tunnel-vision and doesn’t create the conditions for adaptive, creative performance that positively reinforce motivation. 

Improving Motivation in the Workplace

The question so many of us ask ourselves is – given all of the potential benefits – how we can best improve motivation in our workplace? The good news is that there are clear steps we can take. Here I offer ten things managers and leaders can do in order to improve motivation: five that relate to the work itself and five that are about how we treat employees.

In order to tap into employees’ intrinsic motivation, first we turn our attention to the work itself as these actions can be great motivators:

  1. Make the work more interesting.  Ensuring that work has variety is essential to helping employees’ motivation. When employees experience variety, it reduces boredom and keeps them engaged in the work.
  2. Ensure employees have adequate autonomy. Having adequate autonomy gives employees a perceived sense of control over how they get their work done. Employees who are enabled to do their jobs with greater autonomy feel more motivated, satisfied, and creative.
  3. Connect the work to its significance. Helping employees understand the meaning of their work is critical to connecting them to the bigger picture. Feeling that your work is important to key business outcomes is a strong intrinsic motivator.
  4. Assess workload. Feeling stressed and overworked is sure to hamper employees’ motivation.  It’s critically important to take time to assess whether employees have adequate resources and time to complete their work. Leaders should ensure that workload matches capacity and find ways to make necessary changes.  
  5. Offer opportunities to learn. Employees show higher levels of motivation when they continue to learn and apply new skills over time. It helps them avoid feeling stagnant and instead look to future opportunities for continued growth. 

After we address the work itself, we turn our attention to how we treat employees:

  1. Focus on what people value. Managers must determine what each person on their team values in order to understand what factors will motivate them. If you want to earn someone’s trust and respect, first strive to understand who they are and what matters to them.
  2. Ask questions. Rather than making assumptions about how associates are doing, leaders are encouraged to ask questions. It isn’t always possible to “read” someone else’s motivation from the outside; asking employees about their experience will help them feel heard and ensures leaders know what is truly happening.
  3. Offer support. At a time when many employees report feeling more stressed than they did a year ago, leaders would be wise to offer their support. Helping to remove obstacles or sharing resources can help employees who are overwhelmed or feeling demotivated by stress. 
  4. Create a positive working environment. Leaders should strive to create positive and healthy work environments by striving for open communication, employee recognition, and strong relationships. These environments help employees feel valued and motivated to do their best work.
  5. Celebrate progress not just completion. Celebrating small wins – rather than waiting until the final goal has been reached – can help keep people motivated. While we remain connected to the bigger picture, we can acknowledge the progress we’re making and celebrate how far we’ve come.  

Across all of these suggestions, it’s important to check in with employees on how they perceive your efforts and how motivated they feel. Organizations are encouraged to conduct engagement surveys that measure employees’ perceptions and reactions. Leaders are then responsible for using the data from these surveys to look for opportunities to consider how they’re treating their teams and address key motivators. 

Motivation is contagious. Employees who are engaged in their work help other employees remain engaged in their work. Whether we’re helping ourselves or our teams, it’s a good idea to know how to master a lack of motivation and turn it into great performance. There are important steps we can take to help employees feel more motivated and spend more time in that coveted state of flow.