Q&A on Employee Motivation

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I was recently interviewed by Ryan Estis, noted performance and leadership expert, for a post on his blog. Ryan has consulted with some of the top companies in the world and recently keynoted for the Society of Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) national conference. Here is a portion of the interview.

Ryan: What is motivation?
Jason: You can find dozens of definitions of motivation on the internet and through the research literature. The definition I use is simple and applicable to life in general and the workplace. Motivation is a person’s energy that initiates and directs a specific behavior.

Ryan: What is the difference between motivation and engagement?
Jason: Most people use the words motivation and engagement interchangeably. While there is some overlap in the two concepts, they are different in a couple of ways. I could write an entire blog post on this question alone, but I’ll give you a nut-shell answer.

It is important to understand that human motivation is a scientific psychological construct that has been studied for more than 100 years starting with Sigmund Freud and William James. Engagement is a newer construct that has become popular over the past 15-20 years especially with human resource professionals. Having said this, there are two important differentiators between the two.

First, motivation is the basic and raw energy towards an action and therefore precedes engagement, which Towers-Watson defines as a person’s level of discretionary effort. In other words, one must make an internal decision to take action before engagement occurs. Second, motivation is generally focused on one behavior or a grouping of similar behaviors or actions while engagement is a combination of several constructs including commitment, loyalty, and satisfaction that is measured together and across multiple behaviors on the job.

I believe there is great benefit in studying both of these concepts as it will continue to provide a better understanding of the psychological and environmental factors that influence a person’s willingness to give their best effort on the job.

Ryan: How is a person motivated? Is there a secret sauce?
Jason: Many decades of scientific studies have led psychologists to a number of theoretical perspectives of motivation. Some perspectives seek to explain the origins of motivation, while others seek to explain how motivation is hindered or supported. These theories have encouraged hundreds of studies that have helped us determine what ideas work and those that don’t, especially in the workplace. The bottom line, motivation is internal and is derived from a person’s internal cognitive processing related to the value of an action. A person’s motivation or energy toward an action is based on two evaluative domains. First, a the meeting of a person’s unique basic desires and secondly the environment a person is in that either supports or hinders the progression towards meeting one’s unique basic desires.

So, no secret sauce but there are some important things a leader can do to become a motivating manager and significantly increase effectiveness.

Ryan: What is the most important thing a leader can do to be motivational?
Jason: The most fundamental, yet powerful, way a leader can motivate is to seek to understand the values and fundamental desires of each person and put them in a position to fulfill these desires. This isn’t always easy and takes time, which is the reason why most managers aren’t able to motivate well.

Every person has a unique set of values and desires. For one person status and influence may be their strongest desires and they are motivated by actions that help them fulfill these desires. Another person may have a high level of desire for security and honor and would be less motivated by actions that move them toward status and more motivated by activities that move them toward feeling more secure and moral. I recommend the book Who am I by Ohio State University professor, Steven Reiss to any manager who is interested in understanding how to determine their own desires and those of others.

Ryan: Is there a difference between motivating an individual and motivating a team?
Jason: Yes, there is a big difference. Many people tend to think that having a group of individually motivated team members creates a highly motivated team. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Good team leaders have to motivate on an individual level as well as a team level. The leader must view the team as a unique organism and motivate accordingly.

When our goals are dependent on the actions of others and not just our own, we begin to ask ourselves 3 fundamental questions that influences our motivation level. The questions are:

  • Does the team have the right set of skills and knowledge to meet our goals and become successful?
  • Does the team as a who have the willingness to collaborate effectively to reach our goal?
  • Will everyone pull their own weight? or Will everyone take responsibility for their own work?

Leaders can help increase team motivation by developing the team in such a way that each member answers the 3 questions as positively as possible. The more positive each team member answers these questions the more motivation each person will have to put forth their best effort to meet the team goals.

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1 Comment on “Q&A on Employee Motivation

  1. A great team creates better motivation for all of the “players.” Nobody stays motivated if they feel they are carrying all of the weight in the company.

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