What Truly Motivates Employees

Employees who go above and beyond are the dream of any hiring manager. Is doing so some kind of innate quality only a gifted few possess, or is it something that’s brought out of everyday employees?

If it’s the former, how can you tailor your business to attract such rock-star employees and weed out the pikers? If it’s the latter, what does it take to bring these qualities out of the nine-to-fivers? What motivates employees to do better?

Peer Motivation

In 2014, TINYhr – creators of the anonymous employee survey-app TINYPulse – set out to answer that question. In a survey of more than 500 organizations and 200,000 respondents, their report found that the No. 1 thing employees cite as their strongest motivator at work is peer motivation; that is, the drive to help their team succeed.

Peer motivation isn’t something that just magically happens. To encourage it, employers have to take a hard look at the way their business operates. They need to ask themselves whether their management style fosters cooperation, leaves workers feeling isolated or forces them into competition.

Opportunities To Grow

While peer motivation is what drives employees to succeed, opportunities to grow are what drive them to stay. According to a BambooHR survey of more than 1,000 workers, a lack of opportunities is the single biggest factor that will chase good employees away.

The logic here is pretty simple: Good employees are also innately ambitious. Ambitious employees seek better opportunities. So if you don’t provide them with those opportunities, they’ll pack up and look somewhere else.

As the TINYhr report shows, opportunities to grow don’t necessarily just mean advancement up the career ladder, fancier titles or even more money – all of which ranked toward the bottom in the engagement survey. Rather, it means opportunities to learn new skills, meet new people or to be granted more responsibility.

Strong Work Culture

Think of it this way: employment is just like dating. You can’t achieve happy results without the foundation for a good relationship. In the workplace, that foundation is a strong culture that reinforces company philosophy and values the employees that uphold it.

It’s simple. Happy employees are more productive; unhappy employees leave.

Employee happiness can be difficult to quantify, but it is a concrete value, and it matters.

Engaging, Interesting Work

Employee engagement and job satisfaction are not the same thing. An employee can love her job, her pay, and her co-workers, while still finding the work itself utterly tedious.

Making your workers happy will help keep them around, but if you want to really motivate them you have to find ways to let them engage with their work. That means incentivizing creative thinking and discouraging a nine-to-five, nose-to–the-grindstone, shut-up-and-do-it mentality.

Employees Are Motivated By Being Involved

The truth about employee motivation is painfully simple, and there are decades of surveys to back it up. When asked what motivates them at work, employees reliably answer the same things, in generally the same order. When managers are asked what they think motivates employees, an interesting discrepancy emerges:

What Employees Want

  1. Appreciation of work done
  2. Feeling of being in on things
  3. Sympathetic help with personal problems

What Managers Think Employees Want

  1. Good wages
  2. Job security
  3. Promotion

Notice the difference? All the soft factors, the ones that are hard to quantify, have been stripped out.

For decades, managers have labored under the misconception that employee motivation and loyalty can be bought for cold, hard cash — and for decades, they have been totally wrong.

Every workplace is different, and the same goes for every worker. At the end of the day, if you really want to know what will motivate your employees to do better, why not just ask them?

Chances are, they’ll be all too happy to tell you.


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