“Expending energy trying to motivate people is largely a waste of time” writes Jim Collins, author of Good to Great (one of the most read management books).  He goes on to say that the key to a successful business is to ensure you have the right people “on the bus” who should be self-motivated.  The key challenge to leaders and managers is to then ensure that their actions don’t demotivate their employees.

Historically, many businesses subscribed to the management theory that, provided employees were given the right mix of rewards and/or punishments, they would be motivated to do what the senior team wanted.  This may have worked at a certain point in time and for a particular type of work.  However, more recently behavioural scientists have found that for many people this “if-then” form of reward (or punishment) does not always produce the levels of employee motivation expected.  In fact, in many studies, “if-then” type of rewards have proven to be detrimental to participant motivation.  For many businesses, the view of what does/doesn’t motivate employees is lagging behind the science.

Today, there are also a number of social, economic and technological factors of which managers should be aware as they may well have an impact on levels of employee motivation.  The work/life balance expectations of Millennials and Generation Z are different to that of Generation X and Baby Boomers, and consequently there will be different motivational drivers.  The idea of a “job for life” is now by and large consigned to the history books as people look for new and more exciting challenges and opportunities.   Technological advances have resulted in a massive amount of information being available at our fingertips, opening up career possibilities that were simply not available to previous generations.  Additionally, automated processes are increasing taking over the roles that people traditionally undertook across a wide range of industries (e.g. manufacturing, data processing, legal, etc.).

In amongst this paradigm shift of external factors impacting today’s businesses, managers are increasingly looking to recruit and retain highly motivated people to maintain a competitive advantage.

In Dan Pink’s book, Drive, he explores what the science is saying about the key drivers of human behaviour and what motivates us to get out of bed in the morning.  A key distinction is made concerning what is termed extrinsic motivation verses intrinsic motivation.  Extrinsic motivation is the term used to describe motivation that comes from external sources (commission structures, regulatory compliance, etc.).  This is the typical “if-then” type of reward (e.g. if you sell X you get Y) or carrot-and-stick motivation.  Whilst this has its place, it also has a number of downsides as it can lead to a culture of “I’m only going to do it if I’m paid to”.  As any parent who has paid their child to tidy their room knows, getting them to do it for free next time is not so easy!

Conversely, intrinsic motivation focusses upon a values-driven system where the reward an individual seeks is often found within doing the task at hand.  That’s not to say that financial reward is not important, but for many people there is an internal drive to “do a good job” or to experience the joy of overcoming a challenging problem with a creative solution.  Employee expectations are increasingly rising with regard to the challenges they are seeking in the workplace.  In Drive, Pink identifies and examines three critical elements of developing and cultivating intrinsic motivation, namely, autonomy, mastery and purpose.  These are indeed three interesting attributes to consider when looking at recruiting or developing your talent pool.

Taking these in reverse order, consider the following;  Does your business have an overarching sense of purpose that employees (or prospective employees) can relate to?  Without a compelling purpose that employees can identify with, the likelihood is that many staff will just come to work for the money.  On visiting NASA, President Kennedy asked a man sweeping the floor what he was doing, the response was “helping to put a man on the moon” – a clear example of an employee identifying with a purpose greater than his individual role.

Do you allow time and space for your employees to become masters of what they do?  Is there sufficient time dedicated to learning, sharing and passing on knowledge within the business?  It takes time to create a culture that fosters continuous learning and development but it can be an investment that pays dividends in the future.  Mastery is applicable at every level within an organisation from the board room to the shop floor.  Encouraging employees to get better at what they do and helping them to add value to the business (at all levels) is a powerful motivational driver.

Recently, a client was expressing frustration that their employees rarely took the initiative and had to be constantly chased to produce results.  It was quickly identified that the level of autonomy, (i.e. the desire to have control over how we work/live) that was being given to the employees in this situation was minimal.  This was creating a culture where employees expected management to do everything and management didn’t trust the employees to get stuff done.  By giving employees more control over their work (e.g. home working, flexible hours, and increased freedom to promote and market the business) the culture is becoming more results focussed without management having to push people as hard as they used to.  A work environment that wants to create a more autonomous way of working is going to require a high level of trust on the part of both managers and employees.  In today’s workplace, more businesses are going to have to think harder about how they meet a growing demand from employees for more flexible, lifestyle-orientated working conditions.  Results-only work environments (as opposed to a more traditional 9-5 set-up) may still be few in number but are likely to increase in popularity over time.

In summary, business owners and senior managers need to think long and hard about how they want to motivate their employees.  Motivated employees are likely to be more productive, happy and fulfilled in their work.  Consequently, when a company is able to produce a culture that fosters the elements of intrinsic motivation, it stands a better chance of creating an environment that is attractive to both existing and potential employees.  One final thought, with all the goodwill in the world, if someone needs you to motivate them, you probably don’t want to hire them.