Opinion: Motivation in the workplace

by External12 Feb 2014
Workplace learning and development expert Jeff Miller spends a lot of time focusing on motivation among employees. Here, he breaks down how we can better understand workplace motivation.

Motivating employees and organisations makes up a large part of talent management. People use the word motivation (like, “I’m not motivated today…”), but many people in organisations don’t specifically understand what motivation is. If you ask a number of people, in a variety of different professions, from different cultures and different generations, you are quite possibly going to be greeted with a host of different definitions: money, happiness, attention from the opposite sex, peace.

Since there are so many different understandings of motivation, perhaps it is best to start by defining what motivation is not.
  • It isn’t simple and it isn’t impersonal.
  • It isn’t random.
  • It isn’t something managers should dismiss or take for granted.
The initial intent of this post was a “Top 5 Things” about workplace motivation so I started writing a list of motivational factors and stopped at sixteen and realised that was the wrong tack. So, I did what Gen X’r would do: a google search. That returned 29.5 million results in less than .4 seconds. It isn’t that complicated…or is it?

So, how does one start to discuss workplace motivation?

Seeking Pleasure or Avoiding Pain?
Sometime around 350 B.C., Aristotle started the conversation about workplace motivation when he wrote “the aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain.” Sitting right there in those words lay the majority of the thinking around motivation at work. It is this sentence that drives us to crave deep details about the why we work or don’t work.

If you ask people what they love about work you will often hear about things that are more emotionally positive (i.e. salary, benefits, co-workers, managers). When you ask people what they dislike about work, you will hear about painful factors at work (i.e. salary, benefits, co-workers, managers). As a fairly observant reader, you will notice the lists are often eerily similar – but it is where they diverge that creates the interest. No doubt you know people that could change jobs and get more money and better benefits. Similarly, you know people that tolerate horrible bosses and distrustful co-workers because they get a “sweet deal.”

Motivation is Personal (And Isn’t Just About Money)
So, where does that leave us? Simple – there is no one simple way to understand motivation. Motivation is personal; it is about working with and for people you trust and respect. But it is also about synergy. It is about working in an environment that accounts for physical satisfaction, social needs and emotional desires. It is about every manager adopting the mantra of “always be developing.”

A manager has a direct and profound influence over workplace pleasure and workplace pain. Management and motivation focus on continually striving toward meeting the physical, social and emotional needs of the employees. Impactful management goes beyond having a menu of benefits and trips and perks and remembers that while productivity and execution often result in financial compensation, retention and workplace motivation is driven by working in a climate where people are happy, being developed and being invested in.

So, for the sake of simplification, here are five points to consider about workplace motivation:
  1. If you are the boss, the environment you intentionally (and unintentionally) create drives motivation.
  2. Motivating employees isn’t just carrots and sticks – not just about huge compensation packages but about the whole package – workplace satisfaction.
  3. People aren’t motivated by the same things (just like you can’t build a house with only one tool).
  4. Having a cool office with tons of perks is great, but interpersonal relationships by the people in charge are essential.
  5. Motivation is personal. The fifth one is blank for you to personalise.

About the author
Jeff Miller manages the learning & development function for Cornerstone employees globally. He is charged with implementing management and leadership programs, providing coaching to employees around the world and organising development days, internally facilitated conferences in offices globally.

Prior to Cornerstone, he led training and development at two corporations, had his own consulting company and still teaches courses in motivation and learning.

He has a B.A. in Communications from U.S.C., a M.A. in Education from Pepperdine University and a Ph.D. in Motivation and Learning from USC. Visit Jeff's blog here.



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