Employee engagement

What really motivates people?

As a customer, would you like someone to give you great service because they were intrinsically motivated or because they were looking for a reward? Could you tell the difference?!

At The Pioneers, we think having employees who are intrinsically motivated to do their work is critical to sustaining high levels of engagement, great customer experiences and good business performance.

We think there are seven sources of intrinsic motivation that people managers and businesses should be aware of...

Seven Source of Motivation - The Pioneers
Seven sources of motivation – The Pioneers
  1. Belonging: our need to fit in. Groups have been essential to our survival and success. Human beings have evolved to be the most sociable species on the planet. We use laughter, dancing, singing and storytelling to form social bonds. Studies have shown that most of our spoken interactions are about social positioning rather than conveying information. We emphasise the things we share with others and that make us part of their group. We are very adept at quickly understanding how to fit in to the groups around us so we don’t become isolated because being part of a group provides safety and security.
  2. Significance: our desire to stand out. People want to feel like they belong and fit in to the groups around them but at the same time they want to be recognised as an individual. We don’t want to feel like a sheep that just blends in to the crowd. We want to be recognised for our strengths and what we can personally bring to our team that’s valuable. Being able to express ourselves authentically makes us more engaged and committed to our organisations. In a study by Dan Cable and Virginia Kay, newly employed MBA students who made an effort to be themselves at work were more satisfied with their jobs and more committed to their employer. They showed 16% more engagement than those MBA graduates who felt they were not being authentic at work.
  3. Positive emotions: wanting to feel happy. Positive emotions help us ‘broaden and build’. We’ve developed negative emotions to keep us away from harm by triggering our flight or flight responses. Positive emotions have a more subtle effect on our behaviour. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson believes they’ve been critical to encouraging us to broaden our horizons, develop new skills and build up relationships. When we feel safe and happy, we’re more likely to try new things and take risks. Positive emotions also make us more resilient. People who experience more positive emotions have been shown to get over negative experiences more quickly. Their reservoir of positive experiences gives them the ability to bounce back.
  4. Progress: our impulse to improve. Psychologist Mihalyi Csikzentmihayli pioneered the concept of ‘flow’ – the mental state of being completely absorbed in a task or activity, otherwise known as being ‘in the zone’. When we’re in the zone we feel totally focused and energised by the task we’re engaged in. Being in a state of flow is a deeply satisfying experience. Whether we achieve flow or not, we still want to feel like we’re getting better and improving at what we do.
  5. Meaning: our drive to do something valuable. There is a direct correlation between whether employees feel a sense of meaning at work and employee retention, positive customer experience metrics, productivity and profitability. Helping employees connect with the purpose of their organisation and find meaning in their work is critical to an organisation’s success. In a study by Adam Grant, paid employees at a university call centre were asked to phone potential donors to raise money for the university. One group of workers spent five minutes talking with a student who had a scholarship funded by the university. For a month following this visit, experimenters measured the amount of time the call centre workers spent on the phone and the donations they brought in. Compared to a control group, these call centre workers spent 142% more time on the phone and raised 171% more money. Contact with beneficiaries helps employees maintain motivation for their work because they are able to see the impact of their work on others.
  6. Fairness: our aspiration to be treated equitably. A lack of fairness is a motivation killer. When considering how fairly they’re being treated, employees care about two things: whether they’re being treated like people like them ought to be treated; and whether the process (as opposed to the outcome) is fair. Employees are more likely to have positive attitudes and engage in behaviours that benefit their team and organisation when they perceive the team and organisation to be fair. Conversely, when employees perceive unfairness, they are more likely to have negative attitudes and display workplace behaviours that can be detrimental to their team and organisation.
  7. Autonomy: our preference for our own choices. No one likes being told what to do. However, we tend to assume that the role of management is to tell people what to do. This creates a conflict whereby people can perceive that they’re only doing their work because they’re being paid or told to do it. In experiments by Deci and Ryan participants were asked to build shapes out of puzzle pieces. In one condition, participants were paid for constructing the shapes. At the end of the allotted time this group stopped working on the puzzles and read magazines. Another group, given the same task, were not paid and when it came to the end of their time they continued working on the puzzles. The presence of financial rewards masks people’s inherent enjoyment of activities. We also value our own choices. In another experiment, when people chose their own lottery numbers they demanded a higher price for selling their ticket than if their numbers were randomly generated. People place greater value on things they feel they own or control.

How much space do you give these sources of motivation in your organisation?

It’s not practical, nor is it particularly effective, to have the dial turned up to maximum on all of these sources of motivation all of the time. However, you do want to find ways of appropriately designing these motivations into your employee experience.

If you want to improve the employee experience in your business, start by having a quick chat with us to understand which elements of your people system need your attention most. Then we can talk about how you can make the most of these intrinsic motivations in these areas.

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