How to Motivate Employees

Recently, a frustrated business owner asked me how he could motivate his staff. He said he tried everything, but when he described his attempts at employee motivation, they were all extrinsic. He had tried carefully monitoring job completion and task time, ranking employees, and threatening his workers if they didn’t live up to his expectations. He even fired two employees in the hopes that it would be a lesson to the rest of the staff. Now he felt poorly about his actions and was trying to map out an incentive plan.

His story reminds me of an old clip from I Love Lucy that I’ve watched many times. In the scene, Lucy is working in a candy factory. The supervisor tells Lucy and her coworker that no candy is to get by them without a wrapper, and if they fail, they will be fired. The candy is moving by them on a conveyor belt which begins to increase in speed and Lucy and her coworker cannot keep up. Out of fear, they do what would allow them to meet the expectations of their workplace – they eat the unwrapped candy, stuff it in their blouses, and hide it in their hats. Their actions result in diminished productivity, rather than the increase their manager anticipates. It also means the organization would lose product and, ultimately, revenue.

Rather than relying on extrinsic motivation, organizations should consider the role of intrinsic motivation in employee engagement.

Lucy’s escapades illustrate a real-world phenomenon – extrinsic motivators like punishment have been shown to decrease employee productivity. In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink suggests that punishments can sometimes increase the likelihood of undesired behaviours rather than diminishing them, as is the case in I Love Lucy. The natural questions that follow are:

  • How do we promote positive workplace behaviours?

  • Unlike punishments, do rewards elicit increased employee motivation?

Many organizations have creative incentive plans including financial rewards, bonuses, and trips to entice their desired workplace behaviour. However, it seems prudent to question if these extrinsic rewards actually result in increased employee performance. In my experience, they do not.

When I looked at the research, my intuition was confirmed. Rewards often result in the psychological concept called over-justification, where, over time, the reward may become the only rationale for completing a task. In addition, research has also demonstrated that rewards may result in what is called the ratchet effect, in which rewards must escalate to maintain the same motivational effect.

Rather than relying on extrinsic motivation, organizations should consider the role of intrinsic motivation in employee engagement. Humans have a need for competence and autonomy. Employees do not have to be pushed or rewarded to behave in ways that satisfy these needs. Instead, they will seek out experiences that meet their needs and workplaces that provide them.

Below are some tips to help move from extrinsic to intrinsic motivators for employee motivation:

  1. Begin with Purpose. This means articulating how the work of the organization is making the world a better place.
  2. Link Employee Goals with Organizational Goals. It is important to identify the goals and expectations of the people we work with, and try to align the goals of the work with employees’ personal ideals and expectations.
  3. Capitalize on Strengths. People are motivated when they are able to use their strengths on a daily basis. Finding out what an employee’s strengths are and then structuring work to capitalize on them will increase well-being and satisfaction in the workplace.
  4. Allow for choice. As best and as often as possible, allow employees to choose for themselves how to complete a task. This has the dual effect of reducing time spent directing while also increasing employees’ sense of ownership and responsibility.
  5. Have High Standards. Be clear about what the expectations are and have standards that are non-comparative and do not have rankings. This means carefully considering your system of performance assessment.

Employees are an organization’s greatest asset, and the success of any organization depends on the motivation and willingness of staff to contribute their best efforts. When we create a workplace where people are free to engage meaningfully with their work, they will experience the satisfaction that comes from a job well done – and that is good for both the employee and the organization.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


Wendy Loewen

Managing Director

Wendy is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This books is available on our website.

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