Motivation at Work: What inspires employees?


When looking for a job, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? For many, it’s the pay and the benefits. In today’s job market, benefits can be a significant decision maker for millennial employees. As a millennial employee myself, I understand the draw of fully paid health insurance, gym memberships, and ping-pong in the office. For every employer, large or small, there’s an advantage to offering these additional benefits; they help attract top talent and keep employees loyal. They do not, however, mean that employees receiving benefits are engaged.

by Lindsey Meade, Talent Coordinator

The Statistics

A recent survey run by Achievers showed that over 70% of employees consider themselves “not very engaged.” Another study, run by Randstad, notes that the top reasons for leaving a job were insufficient salary, limited career paths, lack of challenging work, work-life balance, and a lack of recognition. Further research by PayScale sites finding an opportunity with more meaningful work as a significant motivator for leaving a company.

The Psychology

When we consider this from a psychological approach, using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this makes sense. Physiological and safety requirements are at the bottom of the hierarchy, while esteem and self-actualization are at the top. This theory suggests that things like healthcare and gym memberships might be important benefits for companies to provide, but what will empower employees to succeed is based on intrinsic factors—giving them a purpose.

Motivation There’s an essential distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to engage to avoid punishment (such as being fired) or receive a reward (such as a cash bonus). You are performing not out of will, but to get something in return. Intrinsic behavior is when you act because it is personally rewarding. You’re doing something because you enjoy it, or the experience in-and-of-itself is rewarding.

Balancing intrinsic and extrinsic rewards in the workplace is essential to maintain employee engagement. Initially, external rewards can improve participation when there’s no interest. They can motivate people to learn and gain new skills. They can also, however, lower intrinsic motivation when an employee already finds the task rewarding. Furthermore, providing excessive external rewards can be discouraging to those who are already intrinsically motivated.

Providing extrinsic rewards at appropriate times is the key to promoting strong intrinsic motivation in employees. Rather than thinking about the benefits all employees receive, focus on developing the following intrinsic motivators for employees:

Meaningfulness Finding meaningfulness in your work is crucial as it helps you feel valued, productive, and engaged, but how you find meaning may be different from others. Some people may find meaning in their company’s values, while some may find it in their role and personal connections they make. If you don’t find meaning in your work one way, you may be able to find it in another by changing your mindset. Ask yourself: Does my work allow me to utilize my talents? Does it support something bigger? Does it help me build positive relationships, or provide for myself and my family? These questions may be general but are what keep people coming back each day.

Autonomy Autonomy is often confused with independence, but it differs significantly. Having an autonomous role does not mean you do whatever you want at work, but rather that you have a choice in how you work to reach a common goal. Autonomy is essential as it allows employees to feel trusted, perform better, and exercise their full potential.

Competence Competence may be fueled by extrinsic motivation, but on its own is a strong intrinsic motivator. According to the Incentive Theory of Motivation, our behavior is driven by the pull of external goals, such as a paycheck, the loss of a paycheck, or even worse, a job. These performance-driven extrinsic factors push us to be competent in our roles. This competence, can, in turn, become an intrinsic motivator as it helps employees not feel bored, put in more effort, and work hard out of their own volition, rather than merely for the payout at the end of the day.

Growth It’s human nature to desire benefits from hard work. Creating a sense of progress for employees with milestones, celebrations, and promotions is an essential motivation in any job. Development is intrinsically motivating because it builds confidence in the future and the company for which you work. This confidence fosters a positive attitude and provides a sense of accomplishment that cannot be mirrored by extrinsic rewards.

At riskmethods, we have built intrinsic motivation into our values: Think big, get stuff done, hate waste, and act respectfully. We encourage collaboration throughout our offices and departments, and applaud the successes of individuals and teams, especially when these come from new perspectives, insights, and ideas. We actively promote autonomy at work, believing in our people, and trusting them to act. Most importantly, we make our work meaningful by making sure every employee’s role has a purpose and a significant impact on the successes of the company.

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