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What psychology can teach us about motivating employees

Published: Thursday 25th February 2016

Man holding up a loudspeaker in attemp to motivate employees

As recruiters, what do we know about motivation and engagement and how has the approach changed? Is the carrot and stick approach still relevant? Can we really motivate employees, in the sense that we can almost ‘push’ motivation on our staff?

Extrinsic motivation such as financial incentives or bonuses based on performance have worked well for years, especially for menial jobs. Research shows it does increase performance in repetitive jobs that don’t require much creativity or higher-level executive functioning.

However, we’ve all seen employees leave, even if they were well paid, or were offered more money to stay. So what else is at play here? If motivation only relied on money, then this simply wouldn’t happen.

Job roles are changing and things aren’t so menial and repetitive nowadays as many jobs are in the service industry where relationship building and decision making are key, overlaid with an ever-changing world of technology.

If extrinsic motivation proves less effective for roles like this, then what’s the opposite of this? Who wouldn’t work for money?

Intrinsic motivation has been shown to be more powerful and enduring. It’s concerned with doing something just for the love of it, and placing the importance on the role itself rather than the benefits. Where extrinsic motivation is a means to an end – for money, status or to please someone, intrinsic motivation is for the love and importance of the activity itself. A salesman might really enjoy meeting new people and influencing them, for example.

The idea has really been developed by psychologists in the form of ‘Self Determination Theory’. Deci and Ryan first proposed it in 1985 and it has been applied in many fields ever since from sport and business through to education.

So, if our employees aren’t just robots, how can we create an environment more conducive to a self-directed, intrinsically-driven and engaged workforce?

Self Determination Theory states three pre-requisites are required for self-determined motivation. Here’s a brief explanation and some simple tips for each:

1. Positive Competence Feedback

To translate, this just means that employees need to know they are doing well, and feel good when they’re told they are. It might be via an employee of the week scheme or just a simple ‘well done’ chat or email after a big project. Be careful about putting too much emphasis on competition between employees, and focus more on personal bests and outputs that they are in control of.

2. Perceived Autonomy

Translation: How much control do they think they actually have? This boils down to the basic human desire not to be told what to do, or be micro-managed. What’s important is that this is a perception, so involve your employees in brain-storming, give them some alternatives and let them be part of forming solutions. If they come up with a plan of action, or even KPIs themselves they will own it and be far more driven to see them through. Try empowering your employees and watch them rise to impress you.

3. Relatedness

We all want to feel part of something, have friends and be connected to others, don’t we? As a boss, encourage an open door policy and get to know your employees. If you can ask about how their child’s dance performance or football match went, it can go a long way. Teams that socialise every once in a while and spend time outside of the business together will be more inclined prepared to go out of their way to help each other to complete tasks in the work environment.

Have a think about how you hit these three factors of competence feedback, perceived autonomy and relatedness. What messages are you giving your employees and can you espouse more of these three vital ingredients to self-determined employees who own their roles and are driven to see things through?

More reading on Self Determination Theory here.

Ted talk on motivation in the workplace here.

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