The good news: motivating employees is not that hard.
The bad news: demotivating employees is incredibly easy.
How do you make employees happy? What are the best tactics for recruiting, retaining, and getting people to give it their all? A competitive salary? Good benefits and 401k matching? And the younger generations want flex time and casual Fridays, right? Wrong. Research shows these so-called “hygiene factors” can’t increase job satisfaction, they can only reduce dissatisfaction. Unfortunately, these common carrots are not what truly motivates people in the long term.
An engaging TEDTalk by Dan Ariely describes research that shows what does motivate people – and what demotivates them. Ariely, a behavioral economist, conducted a series of clever experiments in which participants were asked to assemble Lego-based “bionicles” for small sums of money. As they completed each, they were asked if they would make another one, for slightly less money each time. People were separated into two groups, a “meaningful” condition, in which their bionicles were gradually amassed by the experimenter, and a “Sisyphus” condition, in which their newly created bionicle was disassembled in front of them as they created the next. People created significantly more bionicles in the first condition compared to the “Sisyphus” condition. Further, intrinsic enjoyment of the activity moderated this finding – when people reported liking building with Legos, they built even more in the “meaningful” condition, but in the “Sisyphus” condition, they built even less. Even in this simplistic activity, people were more productive when they could confer some meaning to the task – and a lack of meaning completely crushed their intrinsic motivation.
In a similar set of experiments, participants were asked to review a piece of paper filled with random letters and were tasked with finding letter pairs. As they turned in their work to the experimenter, he either scanned it and set it aside, didn’t scan it and set it aside, or immediately put it in a paper shredder. What they found was that people were more productive when their work was acknowledged, and that productivity was strongly diminished in either situation when it was not – there was little difference between the no-acknowledgement/set aside condition and the shred condition. The take-home message here? Ignoring good performance is almost as bad as destroying someone’s work before their eyes.
Adam Grant, Wharton management professor and author of Give and Taken: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, has also reported on compelling research that further illustrates the value of imbuing work with meaning. In a chapter on prosocial motivation at work, Grant describes a field study among fundraising callers responsible for soliciting donations for scholarships. In one condition, callers spent five minutes interacting with a scholarship recipient, and in the control condition, callers had no connection with scholarship recipients. Results showed that callers in the contact condition showed markedly greater persistence and performance compared to those in the control group. Motivation and performance are enhanced when workers understand why their work matters to others.
Ariely shared one other set of research results that sheds light on what motivates people. Study participants were asked to create origami shapes and were then asked how much they would be willing to pay for them, and how much they think others would be willing to pay for them. People valued the origami they made more than others did, and the harder they had to work to create them, the more they thought they were worth. In other words, the more effort people invest in something, the greater value they attribute to it. People like to be challenged and to work hard, and they feel pride in what they produce. They key is to avoid demotivating them, because as we saw in Ariely’s studies reported above, when intrinsic motivation is high but meaning is absent, performance is severely affected.
Simply put, people are motivated by meaningful work – work that matters to others, and work that they find personally engaging. Leaders and managers can capitalize on this fundamental fact of human nature by:
- Fostering a sense of connection. People need to feel connected with others – the people they work with, and the people they work for. When recruiting, put values fit/alignment high on your list of must-haves – shared values afford a short-cut to interpersonal connection.
- Acknowledging their contributions. Do not miss an opportunity to acknowledge good performance. Reward and recognition strategies are important, but equally important is providing managers with the interpersonal skills to motivate and coach their direct reports.
- Conveying the role they play in the big picture. People are driven by meaning, and meaning is conveyed through context. Find ways to show people how their work impacts their peers, leaders, the bottom line, and customers or end users.
- Empowering them sufficiently to let intrinsic motivation blossom. When work is over-controlled, people lose interest in doing the work for the sake of the work. Give them enough freedom to find challenge, ownership, identity, and pride in what they do.
In his talk, Ariely makes a good point about how we have made a shift from an industrialized economy to a knowledge economy, and that this shift requires a change in how we think about fostering productivity. In a knowledge economy, people cannot be treated as inputs to be made more efficient, but all too often we try to systematize work within this framework. Organizations and leaders need to find ways to allow people to find personal meaning in their work and show them why what they do matters.