What Really Motivates Employees

Employees that are engaged in their work are more productive, satisfied, and likely to stay with an employer motivating them to do their best.

Having a more engaged workforce is highly beneficial to companies and managers, positively impacting areas including workplace safety, employee health, and profitability. Consider the latest Gallup Employee Engagement study that reports that only 34% of employees are truly engaged at work. In fact, Gallup estimates that actively disengaged employees cost the US $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year.

The secret to engaging employees comes from a key aspect of motivational psychology: the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation comes from external sources (for example the promise of a reward or the threat of punishment). Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within.

Intrinsically motivated employees genuinely desire to excel at their job and find their work rewarding on its own merit. Research finds that intrinsic motivation is a powerful driver of employee engagement.

So how can leaders and managers create an environment that intrinsically motivates employees?

Build a culture of respect

What would an intrinsically motivating environment look like?

It would have a workplace culture that is inclusive and respectful of the backgrounds and ideas of each individual. A 2016 SHRM study finds that respectful treatment of employees at all levels rates as very important by 67% of employees, making it the top contributor to overall employee job satisfaction. Nearly one half (49%) of employees in the same study indicate that their immediate supervisor’s respect for their ideas translates into job satisfaction. Employees who feel seen, valued, and listened to help spread a culture of respect and civility.

What else contributes to this positive workplace culture?

Make it meaningful

Employees are more motivated by meaningful work that gives them a sense of purpose than by strictly financial rewards. This is especially true among younger workers.

In fact, a 2014 study of 300 companies finds that 94% of Millennials want to use their skills to do good in the world, and 50% would take a pay cut if they find work that matches their values.

Leadership should talk with employees regarding the “why” behind their work. For example, ask, “What makes your company’s work important?” or “How does it positively contribute to the business world?” As part of the conversation, leaders should share stories demonstrating the positive impact their organization has on customers and the larger community.

Recognize excellence

Most people respond well to appreciation. Research finds that managers who positively recognize employees can boost employee engagement by up to 60%. Yet, 63% of employees report they don't get enough praise. Recognition does not need to be attached to a financial or tangible reward to increase motivation. In fact, 83% of employees say it’s better to give someone praise than a gift. Putting systems and traditions in place for workers to receive recognition from peers, managers, and leadership becomes an effective and easy way to motivate employees.

To wrap it up…

When thinking about employee motivation, take a cue from Whole Foods, a company that regularly tops the list of best companies to work for. Whole Foods’ former CEO John Mackey states, “If you are lucky enough to be someone’s employer, then you have a moral obligation to make sure people look forward to coming to work in the morning.”

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