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Discover What Really Motivates Your Employees

Kerry Goyette
Kerry Goyette

Learn how to identify what motivates your employees and makes their jobs rewarding.

A question that all company leaders grapple with is how to motivate their employees. Various carrot-and-stick methods can bring short-term results, but there is a better way. True motivation is intrinsic and powerful. It guides behavior, fuels innovation and lies at the root of why we do what we do.

Leaders need emotional intelligence to unlock what really powers their people and to identify their own motivations. According to a World Economic Forum report, emotional intelligence is one of the top skills needed in today's workplace. Emotional intelligence helps leaders predict behavior and understand how people will respond to threats and opportunities, making for smoother sailing as a company navigates different stages of growth.

Understanding how motivation works

Motivation is not always simple to get right. In fact, the traditional workplace often has it completely backward. According to old-school thinking, people don't like work and would prefer not to be there. Operating through that negative lens, leaders attempt to motivate workers by coercion, control or threats. This approach impedes progress, leaving employees afraid of making mistakes and trying new ideas.

One manufacturing company I worked with had a high error rate in its plant, and the company wrote up people up every time an error occurred. But that wasn't solving the root issue. We began working with the leaders and employees on employee engagement and building emotional intelligence. Within five months, the error rate dropped by 70%, saving $70,000 per month. Once company leaders began to truly engage employees and show that managers cared, employees were more invested and more careful.

Incentive programs that are meant to be a form of positive external motivation often aren't any better. In addition to causing employees to fear losing, they also distract employees from the company's goals.

Organizations are now offering perks like espresso machines and beer on Fridays to retain employees. I know one woman who worked for an organization that offered great perks, but she quit her job. She said her manager never gave her feedback and let her continue making a mistake she didn't realize she was making for a year. She was motivated by learning and growing. You could have offered her many perks, but if her core motivational drive wasn't being met, it wouldn't keep her there long-term.

External motivation will never be as powerful as intrinsic motivation simply because of the way our brains are wired. According to Nobel Prize winner and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, humans consistently prioritize avoiding threats over maximizing opportunities.

Think back to grade school, when you likely participated in a reading incentive program – you read books to get a reward like pizza. Did you enjoy reading as much when the external bribe was in play? Probably not. In fact, school districts pulled out of programs that offered pizza coupons because students were reading shorter books beneath their reading level. Instead of being a pleasure, reading became an obstacle to a reward.

It works the same way in the workplace. External motivation leads you to set more attainable goals in an effort to avoid failure – not exactly great for innovation.

Six catalysts of intrinsic motivation

Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that intrinsic motivation spurs people to action because they find the job personally rewarding. To get at intrinsic motivation, emotionally intelligent leaders don't tie lofty goals to compensation.

Intrinsic motivation comes in many forms. Here are six common catalysts that leaders should use to identify what makes their employees – and themselves – tick and steps you can take to encourage employees who fall into these categories.

1. Theoretical

From the time we arrive on this planet, we have an innate desire to learn about the world around us. Company leaders and managers can encourage this thirst for knowledge by offering opportunities for employees to learn and solve problems. Rather than put people on the spot, give them a chance to dig into a problem and research solutions.

Give employees who fall into this category opportunities to share what they've learned with their coworkers. These employees would be a great fit for training and mentoring programs, so find a program to challenge them. And make sure to give them time at meetings to provide specifics on the data and information they've uncovered that can be helpful to others.

2. Utilitarian

These are the people who like to dig in and get the job done. These employees hate wasted effort, busywork, or feeling like they are spending their days on meaningless tasks. They like practicality and efficiency. Give these employees projects with real outcomes that use their skills.

These people like getting a lot done in a short amount of time, so give them jobs that can be done quickly. Because they value efficiency, give them jobs that can be done with limited resources. Also, encourage their efficiency by putting them in challenging roles that make the most of those skills.

3. Aesthetic

These are employees who value flexibility, beauty and balance. They want their bosses to respect that they have a life outside of work, so they work best with flexible processes to help them achieve balance and encourage creative thinking. They also tend to understand their own motivations and others as well.

Give these employees a chance to make a difference by using their creativity on projects, but be sure to set clear expectations and timelines, as these workers often struggle with perfectionism. Environment is often important to these people, so provide opportunities for them to make improvements in the look and functionality of their workspace.

4. Individualistic

Many individuals hold themselves personally accountable for success and have an innate desire to lead. Let them. These are the people who are energetic and ambitious. Provide opportunities for advancement, don't micromanage them and celebrate their accomplishments. While you're at it, don't forget to celebrate your own wins as well.

Let these employees set reasonable rules and ask them to develop a plan for a project at work – and be sure to provide feedback on that plan. Have conversations about their careers and provide coaching and feedback about their futures.

5. Altruistic

These workers are motivated by the desire to help others. You should provide opportunities for them to collaborate and socialize with others. Make sure they understand the impact of their work on others and ask them to help with mentoring and training on the job. 

One good path for these workers is to make them a resource for onboarding new hires, helping them adapt to their new workplace and guiding them in the company's culture. Any opportunity you can find to allow them to boost camaraderie on the job will benefit them and your business.

6. Traditional

Some individuals are motivated by a desire for order and rules. These workers are organized and devoted to causes they believe in. They will flourish better under structure. Assign them to projects that reflect this.

Ask these workers to provide feedback on process improvements, something they will thrive on. Make sure to provide clear rules, requirements, and specifications around tasks. They also value fairness, so focus on ethics, standards, equality, and inclusiveness with them.

A Gallup engagement survey says that employees often leave their jobs because of a poor relationship with their boss. Frequently, the cause of this poor relationship is that leaders lack emotional intelligence and do not truly understand what motivates their people.

Using these catalysts as a guide to unlock your team's (and your own) intrinsic motivation will not only lead to greater employee engagement and retention, but will also fuel innovation and success. You and your team will find greater meaning in your work and derive greater satisfaction in your accomplishments.

Image Credit: jacoblund/Getty Images
Kerry Goyette
Kerry Goyette Member
Kerry Goyette is the president of Aperio Consulting Group, a corporate consulting firm that utilizes workplace analytics and implements research-based strategies to build high-performance cultures. She is a certified professional behavior analyst and certified forensic interviewer with postgraduate studies in psychometrics and neuroscience. Kerry is an international speaker and gave the popular TEDx Talk “Stop Trying to Motivate Your Employees.” She has consulted for clients across the globe, including Shell Oil, the Houston Texans, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, on scientific strategies to optimize performance.