Work Motivation: What is it Really?

There are very few psychological concepts that are used more frequently in organizational settings, and also very few that are used in more confusing and inaccurate ways than the term “motivation.”  It is very common for managers and supervisors to want their employees to be more “motivated” but when pushed to explain what they really mean, very frequently they are not talking about motivation but some other related factors that might depend on motivation, but are, nonetheless, not really motivation.  For example, when pushed to explain many managers will agree that what they really want is for people to work harder.  Further, many managers really mean that what they want from employees is to do what the manager wants them to do, or to just, “do a better job.”  Clearly, all of these managerial goals might be related to motivation, but a better understanding of what motivation really is could probably be helpful for managers to better understand their employees, and to better accomplish the organization’s goals.

Motivation is not a trait; to say that some people are motivated and some people are not misses the point of what motivation is.  Everyone is motivated, but some might have counterproductive motives like, “A person is motivated to avoid work at all costs.”  This does not mean that they are not motivated, but rather that their motives are not consistent with organizational goals.  Motivation involves arousal or energy, but it also involves goals or direction; it also implies persistence—people will continue to expend effort to accomplish their goals.  One of the things that makes motivation difficult to deal with is that we never observe it directly, but only infer it by looking at behavior.  How do we know that a person is motivated?  By looking at changes in their behavior or continuing patterns of achievement that imply that their behavior is meaningful and goal-directed and that they are expending effort to accomplish their goals.

It is also true that sometimes managers “blame” motivation when it is really a different problem.  For example, if a manager notices that employee performance has decreased and then immediately assumes that it is a motivation problem, it may be that the true problem is something else.  Suppose the employees are working on older equipment that breaks down more frequently and the real cause of the decrease in performance is the down time for the equipment which is not related to motivation (at least in terms of the decrease in performance).  Before managers assume that problems are based on motivational difficulties they also need to first rule out other possible “culprits.”

There are, however, some very good ways for managers to more effectively motivate their employees.  One thing that has been proven to be helpful is to use participatory goal setting with employees.  Too often managers “assign” goals to employees without trying to understand what the employee’s own goals are.  The best managers will help employees meet their own goals in a way that is consistent with the needs of the organization.  If the employee is involved in helping to set these goals they are more likely to be motivated to accomplish them.  It is even more effective if these goals are then used as a basis for performance evaluation in the next evaluation cycle.

Another approach to motivation that can be beneficial for managers and employees involves better understanding of employee goals and the outcomes they want to attain.  Many managers assume that the only thing that motivates employees is money, but we know that is not true; people are also motivated by a wide variety of other things like recognition, achievement, additional training opportunities, and many more similar types of things.  The best thing a manager can do to learn how to motivate a specific employee is to listen to them—they will tell you want they want to accomplish and what is important to them from a motivational standpoint.  Next, the manager will want to make sure that the employees can see a relationship between performance and the rewards they feel are important.  If they believe that performing at a higher level will get them the rewards or outcomes they want, they will then be more willing to work harder to perform better so that they get better rewards.  When employees say things like, “It’s not what you do but who you know that determines the rewards you get,” you know that they do not believe that there is any relationship between performance and rewards—these people will certainly not be motivated to do a better job.

Some tips on how to better motivate people are:

  • Listen to them and determine what is important to them
  • Broaden the reward structure (it is not just the paycheck)
  • Help them set challenging but realistic goals that are consistent with organizational needs
  • Provide frequent and meaningful feedback to employees

Remember, good goals lead to:

  • Better effort, which leads to
  • Better performance, which leads to
  • Better outcomes for the worker and the organization

Rudy Nydegger, PhD, ABPP

Chief of the Division of Psychology at Ellis Hospital
Clinical and Consulting Psychologist in practice over 30 years
Former President of the New York Psychological Association, and current Chair of the Legal and Legislative Committee.