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An Overview of Employee Motivation (Part 2): A Modern Look at Motivating Employees

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Ross Hooper


Join us at the WorldsView Academy Johannesburg campus on 19 February 2014, for a critical discussion around 'Frameworks of Motivation' or share your thoughts in the comment section below and on social media. Find out more

Have you missed part 1 of Ross's blog? Read it here


Following on from the last blog post where I presented some of the traditional, 'old school' theories around motivation, we can now delve into some more recent thinking around motivating employees in the workplace.

Firstly, let's look at Daniel Pink's 'third drive' approach to motivating employees:


The Third Drive

Scientists have long known that two main drives truly power human behaviour - the biological drive including hunger, thirst and sex, and the reward-punishment drive already discussed in my previous article. However in 1949, Harry F. Harlow, professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, argued for a third drive - intrinsic motivation - the joy of the task itself.

His theory was based on studies of primate behaviour when solving puzzles. Harlow found that when presented with a puzzle, monkeys seemed to enjoy solving the puzzles without the presence or expectation of rewards. He found these monkeys, driven by intrinsic motivation, solved the puzzles quicker and more accurately than monkeys who received food rewards. Edward Deci, a university psychology graduate student, went on to replicate these findings with human beings in 1969, concluding that human beings have an "inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capabilities, to explore, and to learn." (Pink, 2009, 8) This essentially means that motivating employees is actually about motivating them, and not all about merely throwing money at them!


Why the Carrot-and-Stick Approach Doesn’t Always Work

The ‘carrot-and-stick approach’ worked well for typical tasks of the early 20th century – routine, unchallenging and highly controlled. For these tasks, where the process is straightforward and lateral thinking is not required, rewards (the carrots) can provide a small motivational boost without any harmful side effects. But jobs in the 21st century have changed dramatically; they have become more complex, more interesting and more self-directed, and this is where the carrot-and-stick (rewards and punishment) approach has really become unstuck. Pink demonstrates that with the complex and more creative style of modern jobs, traditional rewards can actually lead to less of what is wanted and more of what is not wanted.

He provides ample evidence to support the notion that this traditional approach can result in:

  • Diminished intrinsic motivation (lowered third drive);

  • Lower performance;

  • Less creativity;

  • ‘Crowding out’ of good behaviour;

  • Unethical behaviour;

  • Addictions; and

  • Short-term thinking

A New Theory of Motivation

Daniel Pink proposes that businesses should adopt a revised approach to motivation which fits more closely with modern jobs and businesses, one based on self-determination theory (or SDT). SDT proposes that human beings have an innate drive to be autonomous, self-determined and connected to one another, and that when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives. Organisations should focus on these drives when managing their human capital by creating settings which focus on our innate need to direct our own lives (autonomy), to learn and create new things (mastery), and to do better by ourselves and our world (purpose). This forms part of the holistic view of employee engagement, but does not directly inform how employee engagement is enacted and ensured throughout an organisation.

Below are a few initiatives that fit with Pink's revised motivation theory which will assist an organisation to motivate its employees in the correct way:


Autonomy – provide employees with autonomy over some (or all) of the four main aspects of work:

  • When they do it (time) – Consider switching to a ROWE (results-only work environment) which focuses more on the output (result) rather than the time/schedule, allowing employees to have flexibility over when they complete tasks. (this is expanded upon below)

  • How they do it (technique) – Avoid dictating how employees should complete their tasks. Provide initial guidance and then allow them to tackle the project in the way they see fit rather than having to follow a strict procedure.

  • Whom they do it with (team) – Although this can be the hardest form of autonomy to embrace, allow employees some choice over who they work with. If it would be inappropriate to involve them in the recruitment/selection process, instead allow employees to work on open-source projects where they have the ability to assemble their own teams.

  • What they do (task) - Allow employees to have regular ‘creative’ days where they can work on any project/problem they wish – there is empirical evidence which shows that many new initiatives are often generated during this ‘creative free time’.

Mastery – allow employees to become better at something that matters to them:

  • Provide “Goldilocks tasks” – Daniel Pink uses the term ‘Goldilocks tasks’ to describe those tasks which are neither overly difficult nor overly simple – these tasks allow employees to extend themselves and develop their skills further. The risk of providing tasks that fall short of an employee’s capabilities is boredom, and the risk of providing tasks that exceed their capabilities is anxiety.

  • Create an environment where mastery is possible – to foster an environment of learning and development, four essentials are required – autonomy, clear goals, immediate feedback and Goldilocks tasks.


Purpose – take steps to fulfil employees’ natural desire to contribute to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves:

  • Communicate the purpose – make sure employees know and understand the organisation’s purpose goals not just its profit goals. Employees, who understand the purpose and vision of their organisation and how their individual roles contribute to this purpose, are more likely to be satisfied in their work.

  • Place equal emphasis on purpose maximisation as profit maximisation – research shows that the attainment of profit goals has no impact on a person’s well-being and actually contributes to their ill-being. Organisational and individual goals should focus on purpose as well as profit. Many successful companies are now using profit as the catalyst to pursuing purpose, rather than the objective.

  • Use purpose-oriented words – talk about the organisation as a united team by using words such as ‘us’ and ‘we’, this will inspire employees to talk about the organisation in the same way and feel a part of the greater organisational cause. 


The Main Role of Employee Motivation

Motivated employees are needed in modern rapidly changing workplaces. Motivated employees help organisations survive and progress, and are generally more dynamic and productive. To be effective, managers need to understand what motivates employees within the context of the roles they perform. Of all the functions a manager performs, motivating employees is arguably the most complex. This is due, in part, to the fact that what motivates employees changes constantly. For example, research suggests that as employees' income increases, money becomes less of a motivator. Also, as employees get older, interesting work becomes more of a motivator.

In the next article we'll explore the methods that enable and engender motivation amongst employees, and examine how old and new approaches to motivation could actually be the foundation of employee engagement and employee retention - which ultimately ensure improved organisational performance.


Would you like to find out more about motivation and engagement? Read the article written by Star Performance for our OD Café on 'Motivation, Engagement and the Circumplex©'



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