What keeps you running? About motivation at work.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.”

 Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, physicist and theologian (1623-1662)


Every manager knows it: nothing extraordinary will happen in their teams without their members being clearly motivated. Reviewing the results of the recent researches in psychology and peeping at some of the classical theories that aim at defining what motivation is about will potentially help you clarify your own drivers as well as identify the inner motivations of each one of your team members. It will then be up to you, as a manager, to design your team objectives and to model behaviors that will keep everyone’s motivation as high as possible, setting the team for a long-lasting success through increased performance and commitment.


Why talking about “motivation”?

Individual and collective performance is commonly described as a function of the 4 following variables:

  1. competencies, skills and knowledge of the team members
  2. organization’s quality (including among others: a common vision, inspiring leaders, a corporate culture, clear objectives…)
  3. ability for the staff to work as a team
  4.  employee’s motivation

It is therefore key to understand what “motivation” is about in order to define strategies aimed at increasing the overall performance of your teams.

What is “motivation”?

In the past decades, abundant psychology researches on “motivation” and more specifically on “motivation at work” have led to a large number of theories. Below is a short presentation of 4 interesting theories.

  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1954):

Maslow’s model classifies human needs in 5 categories hierarchized from the most fundamental levels of needs to the most complex ones as follow: physiological needs (food, sleep…), safety needs (security of body, resources, health…), love and belonging (be accepted, loved, listened by the others, friendship, family…), esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect by others…) and self-actualization (desire to become everything that one is capable of becoming).

According to Maslow, once one has satisfied one level of needs, starting from the most fundamental ones (bottom of the below pyramid), one may look at satisfying the following level.

Maslow acknowledges though that different level of motivation aimed at satisfying different level of needs may be going at once for a given individual, with the domination of a certain need; this has obviously contributed to open the theory to criticism around the idea of hierarchizing the human needs in a defined classification.

  • The Two-Factor Theory of job satisfaction from Herzberg (1959):

The two-factor theory from Herzberg (also known as Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory or Dual-Factor theory) simply states that, in the workplace, there are two sets of elements, one being responsible for the job satisfaction whereas the other one causes job dissatisfaction.

According to Herzberg, the hygiene factors (also known as extrinsic factors) such as salary/wages, work conditions, company policy, relationship with peers and boss can lead to dissatisfaction if absent or insufficient but are not a condition to create motivation. On the other hand, the motivators also called intrinsic factors, that include among others recognition, growth, responsibilities, achievement, lead to positive job satisfaction and motivation.

  • Vroom’s expectancy theory (1964):

In simple terms, Vroom suggests in his expectancy theory that the motivation to act on something is based on the analysis of the 3 following parameters:

  1. the estimation of the probability of success (or performance level) for a given effort
  2. the probability of being rewarded for the provided effort
  3. the perceived value of realizing the objective for the individual.
  • The Cognitive Evaluation Theory (CET) from Deci (1975):

The result of a large number of psychology researches in various countries has clearly shown that motivation cannot be reduced to extrinsic reinforcement, ie to the act of reinforcing behaviors by rewards / punishment (the famous carrots and sticks). More importantly, it has also revealed that what is called intrinsic motivation leads to a superior job satisfaction and performance.

The Cognitive Evaluation Theory from Deci highlights that intrinsic motivation results from two fundamental human needs: the need to define one’s activities autonomously, ie the self-determination of activities, and the need to feel competent and to increase one’s competencies while executing those activities (note here that Deci refers to a subjectively perceived competency).

As mentioned, the intrinsic motivation generates a much higher job satisfaction but it can be hindered by material rewards, by punishment threat or also when people feel exaggeratedly monitored, controlled or evaluated. Under the influence of those external factors, the activities are no longer performed for the pleasure that they deliver but for the advantages that are expected in return (or to avoid punishment). As a matter of fact, Deci and Ryan (2000) explain that those hindering factors contribute to a feeling of imposed behavior, reducing thus the feeling of self-determination.

As a conclusion to the psychology of motivation, the journalist Daniel Pink summarizes in his 2009 book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” what motivation is about by the following sentence: “Carrots & Sticks are so last Century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery and purpose.”

More concretely, how to work on staff “motivation” on the field?

Through empiric observations of your staff, no doubt that you will easily reach the conclusion that inner driving forces differ from one individual to the other. Everybody is unique: different staff, different motivations. Besides, one’s own motivation may also vary based on the environment, experiences, personal growth and other modification of the context. What one needs today may not be what one’s need tomorrow; what one is motivated for today may not be what creates excitement and pleasure tomorrow…

Obviously, your best staff will be the self-motivated ones where there is a perfect alignment between their personal motivations and your company’s objectives. In other words, in this ideal case, the individual purpose and related motivation of your employee matches and serves spontaneously the company’s objectives and in return the self-determined work activities naturally deliver entire satisfaction to the staff, allowing them to increase their competencies and fulfilling their personal objectives. As a manager, you then have the important duty to cherish this precious aligned self-motivated staff and to find ways not to get them demotivated… In reality though, rare are the teams composed exclusively by aligned self-motivated staff; you then have the difficult responsibility to bring everyone at the highest level of motivation possible in order to ensure superior performance.

It becomes then clear that your first step, as a manager, is to spend time with each one of your direct reports, individually, in order to understand what motivates them and equally important what frustrates them in their current assignment. By starting with simple questions and smoothly deepening the answers, try to capture what makes your staff excited, passionate about their jobs, identify which activities generate the biggest pleasure for them. Also be cautious enough to differentiate the components at the origin of an absolute motivation (what makes that your staff will look for another job tomorrow or not) from the ones related to a relative, punctual motivation (what makes a given task or a certain activity attracting and motivating or not in an overall context). You may re-assess those motivation parameters on a regular basis to help you to sort out the absolute ones from the punctual context-specific ones.

As a second step (and more especially in case you could not get a clear understanding of your staff inner driving forces following your discussion), simply observe the behavior of your team: how does a given employee react on his various assignments? Which topics seem to be generating the most excitement for him? Under which circumstances does he take spontaneously the lead or the responsibility? What type of discussions within the team trigger conflicts or even aggressive reactions? Which comments do you get when running the objective assessment interview? What are the questions from your staff when you communicate a policy change (introduction of flexible work, contract adjustment…) or when you share the details of bonuses or salary increase?

Thanks to those 2 steps, you should soon be able to figure out the combination of parameters (and their respective weight) composing the motivation of your staff. It becomes then easier, in a third step, to define the best approaches to decrease a growing job dissatisfaction or to increase your staff motivation. For example, depending on what you have identified as key motivation parameters, you can think of offering new growth opportunities, extended responsibilities, specific financial rewards, coaching session, training… It is equally important to detect factors being a source of frustration or disengagement at work such as difficult interaction with colleagues, excessive pressure, unchallenging tasks, and to act on those hurdles, removing them from the way of your staff commitment and success.

Be creative! Motivating each one of your single staff and/or keeping them motivated is definitely worth your time investment and effort. It will contribute to generate a positive dynamic work environment that will ultimately translate into a greater team outcome and performance.


  • exercise – motivation self-assessment: Answer spontaneously the following questions. Once finished, review your answers; what does it tell you about your values and interests? What can you deduct regarding your motivation?
  1. Which assignment in my current job gives me the most satisfaction?
  2. In the past 6 months, which initiatives have I spontaneously taken at work, without being solicited by my hierarchy?
  3. When interacting with peers or when discussing about my job, which topics do I really get excited about / on what type of topics do I really become defensive or look personally attacked?
  4. What type of work / activities should I avoid?
  5. If I had one factor that would trigger me changing my job from one day to the other, which one would that be?
  • exercise – motivation questionnaire: Rank from 1 to 5 the below elements based on the importance you attribute them (1 = not important at all, 5 = very important)
  1. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5] – salary, wages and other benefits
  2. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5] – work/life balance
  3. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]recognition
  4. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5] – autonomy
  5. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]status and title
  6. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]opportunities for growth and learning, challenges
  7. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]power, responsibilities and decision-making
  8. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]competence and expertise
  9. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5] – culture, affiliation and relationship with colleagues
  10. [1]…[2]…[3]…[4]…[5]work environment
  • exercise – assessing your staff motivation: When initiating a discussion with your staff to identify its motivation, try to get answers to the below questions.
  1. What makes you tick and what makes you frustrated in your current role and work environment?
  2. What gives you the most pleasure in your today’s job?
  3. Which personal short-term and long-term work objectives would you set (or have you set) for yourself?
  4. What type of support would you need to improve your performance further?
  5. Which activities or tasks that you are not involved with today would you like to be part of?

So What?

Because motivation appears as a key parameter to performance, many psychology researches have tried to capture what defines employee’s motivation in the workplace. The most recent studies shows that an employee commitment and performance is much more solid when the motivation is based on intrinsic parameters such as the ability to autonomously define its own activities and the perception of competency; this is especially true when those factors are coupled with an alignment of the company’s missions with the individual objectives, bringing thus a clear overall purpose for the employee. In parallel, it has also been demonstrated that extrinsic motivation answering to a logic of reward/punishment delivers much lower result and commitment. It even impacts negatively the intrinsically motivated staff under certain conditions. External rewards though can help answering a growing job dissatisfaction, which is to be clearly differentiated from generating motivation (decreasing a growing job dissatisfaction is not similar to increasing motivation).

Assessing what keeps your staff coming at work every day and what will make them driving the extra-mile for the company and themselves should consequently be one of the focus of every manager. Before defining any motivation strategy for your team members, it is strongly recommended to engage in individual discovery discussions and to simply observe behaviors and reactions of your staff under various situations and contexts; this will help you in identifying what generates motivation or dissatisfaction for them. It becomes then easier to act on those factors and create a high-motivation environment leading to long-term commitment and performance.


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  1. Talking about motivation « IT and Management

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