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What Really Motivates Us?

It takes more than money to create job satisfaction. Today's leadership is looking past the paycheck to motivate employees. Here's a framework to help get it right. 

 When it comes to incentives most of us think of money. Mind boggling Wall Street bonuses or the multi-million dollar sports contract often come to mind. More money equals more motivation equals more productivity equals everyone is happy. In my career as a manager, I've tried to use it as an incentive (in much smaller ways then the above) to either retain people or motivate them. Has it worked? Before answering, I will share a learning experience that helped me answer it.

Money Moves the World

A while back I had discovered the book How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen. In chapter two, What Makes Us Tick , Clayton shares a story about a case study of a large materials company having a conflict with one of their most critical customers. One suggestion was to assign a key engineer, Bruce Stevens, to this project. Bruce was already involved with more projects on his plate then he could handle, even with working seventy hour weeks. The simple solution was to give a bonus to Bruce for completion of the project.How Will You Measure Your Life Motivation & Productivity Book

Seems reasonable. You align the employee interest to the business interest using a financial incentive and, voila, problem solved. In fact, there is a whole theory behind this called agency or incentive theory, which is largely credited with the movement where executive compensation is aligned with shareholder interests.

Is Job Satisfaction the Opposite of Job Dissatisfaction?

Christensen brings a counter argument to the money as incentive worldview. He brings up examples of motivated, hard working people in nonprofits, charitable organizations, the military and some working in very difficult conditions - disaster recovery zones, countries gripped by famine, flood or war, where they earn a fraction of what they could in the private sector. He asks "How, then do we explain what is motivating them if it's not money?".

His answer is a second theory, called two-factor theory or motivation theory. Popularized by the writings of psychologist, Frederick Herzberg, it does not hold incentives as a sole catalyst for motivation. True motivation is getting people to do something because they want to do it, and continues in good or bad times. In this theory he also debunks the notion that job satisfaction is on one spectrum from miserable to happy. He separates satisfaction and dissatisfaction as two independent measures.

The first set of factors, which he calls Hygiene Factors, tend to be extrinsic to the work itself. These factors are the ones which, if we don't have them, we are dissatisfied, and if we do have them, we are less dissatisfied. They are important conditions, but do not lead to job satisfaction. This includes money.

The second set of conditions in this theory are called Motivation Factors. These are intrinsic to the work itself and can lead to increased job satisfaction. As Christensen wrote, "...that it's possible to love your job and hate it at the same time".

Motivation Framework for improved resource productivity


Why Didn't I Think of That

Looking at motivation through this framework makes a lot of sense. Money is important. If we feel undervalued then we become dissatisfied, angry, resentful, and grouchy. Same goes if we have problems with our bosses or co-workers. Having low dissatisfaction at our job will probably keep us there longer.

However, to truly increase motivation as a manager or leader, we need to focus on the areas that will make our team feel better about the work itself, leading them to perform that work at higher levels. I remember something that happened when I was in high school that brought it home to me.

During the summer, I would work at the resort hotel where my father was a cook. As he got older, he moved from his dinner cooking duties to breakfast. Every morning during the peak season he would start an hour before his normal starting time, to make sure he could have everything set before the doors opened for the morning buffet. I thought he was putting in this extra effort to make overtime money- made sense to me at the time. Some time later however, I learned he wasn't allowed to clock in early- overtime pay wasn't a factor for my Dad. He was putting in the extra effort because it was important to him to have it right and ready for the morning's first customer. His sense of responsibility and self pride in his work were his motivating factors- not money.

Lesson Learned

When managing people the goal is to make sure, as best possible, that hygiene factors are being met for all. However, using money to increase motivation should not be the lone agent. If someone is unmotivated or decides to leave due to the factors listed in the motivation factors box above, it's unlikely that money will change that situation. It's better to spend time to correct the motivation factors. And, while this may mean making changes at the level of company policy and procedure, or even an overhauling of company culture itself, if done with the motivational factors in mind, these sort of changes have the greatest potential to generate job satisfaction and affect the motivation of your employees- more so than just handing out money itself.