What motivates people at work

Would your organization be more successful if your employees were more obedient? Or, would you be more successful if your employees were more artistic, motivated, connected, aware, passionate, and genuine? Seth Godin, Linchpin

Try asking people in your organization: “Why does this organization exist… why do you come to work each day?” or “Why does this change initiative matter?”

If you get a diverse set of answers such as “to make money” “because I need the paycheck” “increase efficiency” “comply with regulations” odds are you lack a compelling purpose or change story.

Most organizations tell change stories related to the company: “become the industry leader” “double in size” “survive in tough economic conditions” “comply with government regulations.” Most of these are financial. Yet people are seldom motivated by a numbers based story. Numbers fail to engage the elephant, the part of our brain that controls behavior.

Lead with Why by Sunni Brown

Occasionally (but not nearly often enough) organizations tell a change story related to the individual (WIIFM). 

Seldom do they tell a change story related to impact on society, the customer, or the team.

In the absence of a why story that resonates, people create their own. Odds are, when they create their own it won’t be a story that motivates them to act in a way that aligns with your goals.

A common story I’ve heard people tell themselves when document management is being introduced in the absence of a change story that resonates is “So that if I get laid off, the company is protected.” Why type of behavior do you think this leads to?

Lead with why

People at work are thirsting for context, yearning to know that their efforts contribute to a larger whole. And a powerful way to provide that context is to spend a little less time monitoring who, what, where, when and how—and little more time considering why. Daniel Pink 

Daniel Pink shares a study by Adam Grant from the Wharton School. In a call center for a large American university, Grant randomly divided employees who call alumni to raise scholarship funds into three groups.

  • First group read brief stories from previous employees about the personal benefits of working in the job. How they developed communication skills and sales know-how that later helped them in their careers.
  • Second group read stories from people who had received scholarships from the funds raised and who described how the money had improved their lives.  The aim of these stories was to remind workers of the purpose of their efforts.
  • Third group read nothing.

A month later, Grant measured the performance of the three groups:

  • First group did no better than the control group, earning about the same number of weekly pledges and raising the same amount of money as previously.
  • Second group raised more than twice as much money, in twice as many pledges, as they had in previous weeks and significantly more than their counterparts in the other two groups. Reminding employees about the why doubled their performance.

In another study by Grant described by Pink, employees who spent five minutes talking to the recipients of the funds they were raising, spent twice as much time on the phone with prospective donors and raised nearly three times as much money.

In a similar vein, simply by having her team of claims analysts interview the people filing claims to learn more about them, Leslie McMillan of Industrial Alliance effected an 80% drop in spending on independent medical evaluations, claim settlement time fell from 8 weeks to 4, boosted revenue by marketing higher-value disability management products, claims ending in litigation dropped from 12% to 7%, employee satisfaction shot up, and lawsuits dropped from 12% of all claims to 7%.

Meaning motivates

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him. Viktor Frankl

According to Wikipedia, The Purpose Driven Life has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for advice books for one of the longest periods in history, topping the Wall Street Journal best seller charts as well as Publishers Weekly charts with over 30 million copies sold by 2007. This hunger for a book on purpose illustrates our fundamental drive to feel that our lives have a deeper meaning.

We yearn for meaning.

This fundamental need for meaning runs counter to the assumptions captured in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that meaning  is only important once our base needs are met. And yet Viktor Frankl, who survived several concentration camps, credits his survival to meaning. In Man’s Search for Meaning he observed that survivors were those who believed their lives had meaning and purpose.

Survival was linked to meaning. Meaning wasn’t a follow-on nice-to-have.

At work, as in life, we’re motivated by meaning and purpose. So let’s rethink Maslow’s hierarchy. Let’s assume meaning is a fundamental human need.

Align with purpose

 Recent research into happiness demonstrates that the happiest people aren’t those with the most money but those with a sense of purpose—a sense that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves. At least some of this has to derive from work. The purpose of a business, then, must be explicit and go beyond boosting the share price or fulfilling some bland mission statement. People want to believe that they’re part of something meaningful. Margaret Heffernan, Another Day, Another Mountain to Climb

Ideally your organization has a clear purpose. But even in the absence of a strong organizational purpose story you can define a purpose story for your project or change initiative that inspires and taps into people’s instrinsic motivation.

In It’s not what you sell, it’s what you stand for Roy Spence outlines 9 purpose principles (in the context of a change initiative, simply substitute the name of your change initiative for the word organization):

  1. Purpose drives everything. It will drive all major decision making and become the determining factor in how you allocate resources, hire employees, plan for the future, and judge your success.
  2. Purpose is a path to high performance. It fulfills a deep-seated need that people have and will drive preference for your company.
  3. Purpose fosters visionary ideas and meaningful innovation. It provides the motivation and direction necessary to create meaningful innovation.
  4. Purpose moves mountains. It can rally the troops to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
  5. Purpose will hold you steady in a turbulent marketplace. It will see you through when times get tough and the road seems unclear.
  6. Purpose injects your brand with a healthy dose of reality. It is not something you can fake. It’s genuine. It’s real. And it’s something that your customers honestly appreciate about you.
  7. Purpose recruits passionate people. It will make your organization more attractive to value-based, passionate people.
  8. Purpose brings energy and vitality to the work at hand. It provides meaningful and sustainable motivation for employees.
  9. Purpose contributes to a life well lived. Work is no longer a 9-to-5 job to be endured but a meaningful source of fulfillment and satisfaction.

If you haven’t yet seen them, I’d recommend watching Simon Sinek’s TED talk How great leaders inspire action and Daniel Pink’s Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us.

Can you discover a why that motivates in your change initiative?

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    About Joyce Hostyn

    2 Responses to “What motivates people at work”

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    1. Frances Wu says:

      Great blogpost. Thanks for helpful tips!


    1. Terry Bandy says:

      Terry Bandy…

      What motivates people at work: the power of why | Designing Change…

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