Do You Motivate Employees, or Do They Motivate Themselves?

by Granville Triumph

granville-motivation“What motivates you?” It’s a common question asked in job interviews, one that often elicits vague, uninspiring answers from applicants who’ve never really thought about it. “I love a challenge,” they might say, or “I just want to help the team.”

Those kinds of platitudes don’t get to the core of the question. Business leaders want to know what their employees enjoy doing, and whether the job will inspire them. Every role has its routine tasks — what will motivate the employee to come to work every day when monotony sets in? Does the employee’s personality fit with the job requirements?

These are not simple questions. Many people think they’d be willing to do almost any job if the pay were high enough. However, extrinsic rewards such as salary are not particularly motivating. In fact, studies have shown that an emphasis on external rewards can actually be counterproductive, leading to high levels of turnover and job dissatisfaction.

At the same time, few employees come to work for fun and enjoyment. Not many people would exclaim, “Oh boy! I get to produce the monthly report!” People come to work because they need income, and business leaders must find ways to balance external rewards with the internal factors that drive each of us.

One of the most important factors is our values, our desire to put in an honest day’s work, help others and do a good job. Then there are personality traits — some of us have a more competitive nature while others prefer routine and structure. Each individual brings attributes that can help drive an organization’s productivity and success. The challenge for business leaders is to find individuals who fit the company and team culture, and to help inspire their contribution to the organization.

In order to unlock the value of intrinsic motivation, business leaders must help individuals align their personal values with organizational values. Many organizations talk about values and culture generally, without bringing it down to the personal level. Individuals need to relate their sense of purpose to the organization’s goals so that their work becomes part of what drives them. It may even be possible to attain what psychologists call “flow” — a state in which the individual is fully immersed in an activity and achieves a high level of performance.

Trouble is, very few people have taken the time to really contemplate what motivates them or to link their work with their life purpose. It all goes back to those vague interview answers discussed at the beginning of this post. Business leaders should learn how to help individuals recognize their motivations and align those motivations with the job at hand. Once that is achieved, it’s unnecessary to motivate the individuals because they motivate themselves.

Purely extrinsic motivation tends to hinder our creativity and desire to do a good job. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, urges us to use our capabilities to the fullest and seek out new opportunities and challenges. It sure beats collecting a paycheck.

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