The Truth About Employee Motivation


If we pause to consider what motivates us to excel at work, we’re likely to land on a very personal goal–a drive to help people, a passion to create, a deep interest in the law or medicine or innovation.

But for most of us who work for other people, something happens on the job. Our managers set goals for us, they promise bonuses or promotions based on targets they determine, and they try to boost morale with pizza parties or field trips or contests. Was anyone ever motivated by winning Employee of the Month? Even worse, some managers—bad ones—resort to tantrums and vague threats.

In their quest to be accountable, and make others accountable, managers have adopted a grab-bag approach to employee motivation. But when it comes to motivation, more may not be better than less.

Further, many of the standbys managers rely on to rally the troops are effective, if at all, only in the short term. Why? Because the biggest motivators are internal.

For a newly published study, Amy Wrzesniewski of the Yale School of Management and Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College asked more than 11,000 cadets to rate the reasons they decided to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point. The cadets ranked both internal and external–or instrumental–motivators.  Getting money to go to college, for example, would be an instrumental motivator, while having a deep interest in military strategy would be an internal one.

After following up with the cadets years later, the academics found that the stronger the internal reasons for signing up, the more likely the cadets were to graduate as well as rise up the military ladder. While instrumental motivators such as money did initially attract recruits, those recruits were less likely to excel.

“Our study suggests that efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives,” they told The New York Times. “Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also — counterintuitive though it may seem — their financial success.”

For managers, of course, it is far easier to set sales targets and deadlines and dangle financial incentives in an attempt to drive results. Bosses rely on external factors because those are the things that they believe they can control.

Igniting someone’s internal drive is far more challenging, not least because those motivators are unique to each employee. Discovering and encouraging them requires that managers learn to communicate far better than most do now, as well as take the time to understand employees as individuals.

That’s a very tall order, but with the large numbers of workers reporting they are dissatisfied with their jobs, it’s seems worth a shot.

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