Each employee starts off a job in a different place, given their work and education history (or lack thereof). Coming into a new position that offers a monetary bonus program, important decision-making abilities and company idea collaboration will extrinsically and intrinsically motivate an employee, especially if they were not offered those outcomes at previous jobs.

Further, if an employee accelerated their career to earn a position at a more prestigious company, they may likely be working in a positive culture and with smarter people; these are cited as the first and second reasons, respectively, that passive job seekers at companies like Facebook and Amazon said they admired Google and would go work for them instead.

In my experience, when money is a main motivator, it is because the employee perceives they are grossly underpaid enough, whether they are or not, to be fixated on it. When they are paid to a certain acceptable level, they can focus on the work more instead of the problems that a lack of money is causing them (e.g. mental distress, personal finance problems).

Find the Tennis Ball

Motivate coworkers by first finding out what is most important to them. While general research may provide “the top” motivators for employees, it’s best to understand how a specific group views motivation. This can be done through surveys as well as open conversations. People want to be able to respond anonymously as well as freely communicate with their supervisors.

In a previous job, I was responsible for training the current management and employees. I discovered the long way that there is no catch-all solution for motivating employees. Often, it was best to offer a buffet, so to speak, of motivation programs that allowed employees to find their own space to motivate themselves. In one example, we examined the employee of the month program that precluded any manager from winning. In surveying the entire company, we found that employees felt the reward of winning the recognition was not enough to perform better, and the managers were not motivated at all as they were not eligible.

We changed the program to honor an employee and manager of the quarter, added designated parking spots next to the building, increased the monetary reward, and added a publicly displayed plaque that honored the winners on gold name plates next to their pictures; this enhanced the meaningfulness of the reward and made it a sought-after recognition. We saw employees competing with their peers, almost comically, to be a better employee.

Personal Motivation

Personally, I am motivated by the meaningfulness, impact and self-determination of my position. I put a great amount of stock in the intrinsic motivation of a position, even at the expense of my own well-being. If the job does not give back economically or communally, I find it hard to care about what I am doing. This is not to say I am immune to extrinsic motivators like pay, benefits and promotions, but my subsequent job performance and organizational commitment is not nearly as strong. I am also extremely motivated when learning a new skill or new information. I say all this not to blanket everyone else with the same goals and rewards, but to invite you look your own motivation system. If you can really tap into why and for what you get motivated, you are better equipped to do the same with others. You’ll be asking yourself the same questions you ask to others. I’d start with the 5-Why exercise. It might look something like this:

Manager: What’s your least favorite part of your job?

Employee: The hours.

M: Why do the hours bother you?

E: Because I get home really late.

M: Why are you getting home late?

E: Because Jim and Ashley bring me stuff at the last minute.

M: Why do they bring you stuff so late in the day?

E: Because they wait until after lunch to write up sales from the previous day.

M: Why don’t they finish before lunch?

E: Because they’re busy in the morning meeting.

M: Why does the morning meeting take so long?

E: Because our supervisor is constantly late.

If you stopped at the first question, you’d probably end up offering that employee some extra help, which would end up costing you more money somewhere else. But digging down into the problem using Why and you find out that this other problem exists. This is obviously a fictitious scenario, but you’ll find that the reality of its applicability is far-reaching and effective when it comes to dealing with people.

It’s important to remember that “intrinsically motivated activities were said to be ones that provided satisfaction of innate psychological needs.”[1] This is to say, people get motivated by their personal “why”. If you aren’t going to invest time in figuring out what that is, the resources you spend trying to motivate them might as well be throwing a dart at a wall of options.


Find out more about asking the right question in this post on Type III Errors.



[1] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary educational psychology, 25(1), 54-67.

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