LME007 – How does employee motivation actually work?

I recently spoke to a young high-tech entrepreneurabout employee motivation. He was complaining about his employees. They didn’t contribute, lacked motivation, but were always looking for better pay. He rolled his eyes and asked me in a depressed mood:

“All I want is to have motivated employees showing commitment. Is that asking too much? “

No, it’s not. You will only achieve long-term success with motivated employees.

As a manager you impact the employee motivation and employee commitment in your company – but in ways other than what you may think.

Could you possibly improve employee motivation?

This will work in the short-term, but it’s a dangerous game. Money may be attractive, but it has no sustained impact on employee motivation nor on employee commitment!

Please don’t take this the wrong way. If you don’t pay your employees an adequate income, then you’ll demotivate your employees! They will not be commited to work for you.

But the inverse conclusion will only work on an exception basis: If you pay an above average income, this will by no means result in your employees being more motivated or more commited over the long haul.

The crux with bonus payments

Some believe that they can master and control their employee’s motivation with bonus systems so called performance based bonus. A bonus is paid if the employee attains a certain performance. – How odd. Why does companies do this? Doesn’t the employee have an employment contract obligating him to perform this service, while the company is paying his income to do so?

If you wish to motivate with money, then you’re accusing the employee of not giving their best effort. You believe that he’s sandbagging a portion of his work performance. For example, then you are therefore only paying him 80%. By enticing him with a 20% bonus payment at the end of the year, you want to close this gap in his work performance, provided he performs.

The German motivation expert Reinhard K. Sprenger accurately called this type of bonus payment a mistrust discount. By making this type of bonus payment, you are suspecting your employees of an unwillingness to perform. This doesn’t exactly instill a trusting relationship. Does it motivate? Does this lead to real commitment? – Not really.

Then what exactly is employee motivation?

Employee motivation is one of those hard to grasp concepts. When is an employee motivated?

Generally put, my understanding of motivation is:

“The force of our psyche that drives and controls our behavior.”

Motivation then is the reason behind a person’s particular behavior. Motivational science differentiates between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic employee motivation

If you hold a carrot to a donkey’s nose, this is extrinsic motivation. This is how you would motivate the donkey to continue walking and carrying loads.

Employee Motivation?

Employee Motivation?
Image partly: deDMazay & phodopus/ source: www.bigstock.com

Applied to the business world: You simply replace the carrot with a financial enticement, a bonus or a promotion. Now you’re on your way to motivating extrinsically. By the way: if you threaten your employee with punishment, you are also motivating extrinsically, for instance:

“John, if you don’t start showing up at work on time at 7:00 a.m., you’ll get fired!”

It doesn’t matter if it’s a reward or a punishment: Extrinsic motivations involve actions that are initiated from the outside. Put bluntly: an extrinsically motivated employee will think:

“I’ll do it because I have to, otherwise …“

Intrinsic employee motivation

If someone takes an action for the action’s sake, he’s intrinsically motivated. He’s commited to his work. He either simply enjoys the activity, he believes it’s worth doing, or it represents an interesting challenge for him.

An intrinsically motivated employee thinks:

“I’m doing this because I want to! “

Extrinsic motivation is a source of focus

The expectation of a reward, but also the avoidance of a punishment is always dependent on the situation. Extrinsic motivation allows you to establish a focus.

But the extrinsic motivation will only last while the reward is anticipated, or the force is applied. When you motivate extrinsically, your employees aren’t working for the sake of the issue! They aren’t really commited.

But if an employee’s intrinsically motivated, no external controlling influences are needed. If you value creativity, self-reliance and reliability, then you need intrinsically motivated employees.

The anticipation of a reward or threat of punishment will only – and only then – motivate and be sensible if

  • Routine tasks need to be performed by following simple rules.
  • A clear-cut objective is set, and the path to achieving it is easily achieved.

A classic example for this is piece-work on an assembly line. It is quite possible to motivate employees to do such work extrinsically.

But extrinsic motivation squelches creativity!

However, extrinsic motivation will not work

  • with any task that is not routine
  • requires thoughts because the way to the solution is not clear
  • for tasks that call for creativity

Extrinsic employee motivation may even be counter-productive. The anticipation of a reward or threat of punishment will cause the employee to focus strictly on this reward or punishment. But the focus should be on creativity, right?

If you need commited, creative employees, you should not put them under pressure. Pressure kills creativity, regardless of whether it is in negative form as a punishment, or in positive form as a reward.

What kind of employee motivation do I need in my company?

Under normal business conditions, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation works in parallel. But the higher the intrinsic motivation, the better.

Why? For the most part, routine activity has fallen by the wayside in most companies. In today’s environment, companies automated most routine activities. They’re being performed by machines, not employees. This is why you need people who contribute, who work independently:

Employees who operate your expensive equipment.

Or are you able to specify each manual intervention and to show your employees in detail how they should operate the equipment?

Employees who call on your customers on your behalf.

You don’t want them to sell as many of your products at all costs. You need them to serve your customer in such a way that he will buy from you again.

Employees in the R&D department.

If they are not creative and develop new products, what will your company sell in the near future?

How can I motivate my employees intrinsically?

You can’t. I my opinion, Daniel H. Pink put his finger on it quite pointedly. He states that intrinsically motivated people have the following characteristics.

1. Desire for self-determination

They want to work independently on a task with the greatest possible elbow room.

2. Strive for excellence

Intrinsic motivated people want to grow with the task. They want to continue improving themselves on an issue that they feel is important to them.

3. Purpose

The things they do must have a purpose. In performing their task, they want to be part of something larger than themselves.

Watch that great video of Daniel H. Pink about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Awesome!

What can you do for your employee motivation?

Don’t spend so much time thinking about how to motivate your employees. But instead, spend time making sure that you don’t demotivate your employees.

  • Don’t skimp on their pay! Pay your employees adequately and fairly.
  • Be consistent and predictable.
  • Do not micromanage!
  • Give your employees decision making authority and manage with objectives and trust.
  • Support your employees in their personal development and their desire to improve themselves.
  • Answer the question why your company is a great place to work. Have a great business vision, emplyoees can connect with.

If you behave in this way, I assure you you have motivated and commited employees in the long term.