The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us at Work

While a compensation package at work may motivate us to some degree, it cannot be used as a substitute for management practices that engage employees and maximize their contribution. Sadly, however, much of corporate America is stuck in the industrial age, using the antiquated carrot and stick system that was developed to boost output on an assembly line.

The problem is that most U.S. employees are no longer doing simple, repetitive tasks where monetary incentives are most effective. In the new knowledge-based economy companies that excel are those that capitalize on their employees’ abilities to solve problems creatively. So as organizations squander money on incentive systems that don’t lead to desired outcomes, employees remain frustrated, unengaged, and unable to make the best use of their talents.

The Un-Money Motivators that Work

So if money isn’t effective in directing employee behavior, what is?

This question is answered in an insightful book called “Drive” by Daniel H. Pink. Pink reviews four decades of psychological research on what ‘drives’ people—at home, work and play. The research shows that once we have a roof over our heads, and enough food to survive, external rewards and punishment are no longer strong motivators. Proving what psychologists have known for a long time, it shows people want:

• Autonomy—the ability to direct their lives.
• Mastery—the opportunity to build on their talents and grow their skills.
• Purpose—to feel like they are making a contribution to society.

Pink discovered there is a huge mismatch between what businesses are doing and what really works to fire-up and engage us as employees.

Companies that pay attention to what energizes people can boost their results with increased productivity, lower turnover and absenteeism, better health, and a more highly skilled workforce. But it requires shifting resources and management focus.

Since change is never easy, I’ve started this blog to educate businesses and their workers, in bite-size chunks, about what methods work to create a healthy workplace—one where companies and employees thrive together. It starts with keeping one question at the forefront. “What would make us, as employees, more excited to come to work than to stay home?” Stay tuned to learn the answers and how you can contribute to a healthier workplace.

Andrea M. Delligatti, Ph.D.