Employee motivation: What you’re getting wrong

Geir Darge · 02 Aug

Having a properly engaged team might sound like a tall order. A ‘perfect world’ situation that doesn't occur in real life. To think this would be a misconception.

The reality is that truly motivated teams can and do exist if they are given the appropriate encouragement and resources.

This is not to say that your employees are going to be 100% engaged 100% of the time. If this is your expectation then inevitably you’ll be disappointed, and likely inspire the exact opposite effect. Staff will have good days and bad days. The great skill is ensuring that the good outweighs the bad and, even on the off days, productivity stays at a certain level.

If you get it right the impact will be felt in every facet of your business, from sales to office management. Motivation in your workplace will drive your business forward, inspire innovation and what’s more, will attract the very best talent in the job market. Perhaps best of all, these factors will not be driven from the top but from the bottom. Your frontline staff, your sales team, your account managers, they will be spearheading the revolution.

But to get this right, the transformation needs to start at the top.

Why do managers struggle to motivate their employees?

Before you even start thinking about ways to motivate your employees, it’s good to consider how your management style might help increase productivity.

Issues with management usually present themselves as one of two guises. The first is managerial disassociation. This basically refers to the type of manager who, is never seen and never on hand to help. A great example for the geeks among you is Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.

Gandalf is the definition of an absent manager. He’s there for the big important meetings, asks a lot of his subordinates but, when things start to unravel, he’s never on hand to help. This tends to be an issue in larger companies, where the chain of command is incredibly long and convoluted. When management becomes overly stratified, the everyday work of employees loses its dynamism and ultimately, employees will start dropping the ball on certain tasks.

It’s not that staff are inherently lazy – quite the opposite is usually true – however, without coherent direction, they tend to work out of sync. Think about an orchestra. Every musician will be at the top of their game and will be playing to the highest of standards, but the music will sound god-awful if there isn’t a conductor keeping things in harmony.


The other is the opposite side of the spectrum and is arguably worse: micromanagement. This is harder to quantify but generally speaking, it’s when managers become too involved in their employees work, to the point where productivity slows due to interference. Picture Monica from Friends, redoing all of Rachel’s cleaning up because it’s not exactly how she likes it.

At best this style of management is counterproductive and slows down the rate of work. At worst it can give your employees the impression that you don’t trust or value their work. The consequence of which won’t just be disengagement but a toxic workplace environment.  

Ultimately you want your employees to feel ownership over their work, if they don’t, they’ll lose their inner-drive. Passion isn’t something you can ‘manage’ into people, it has to come from within.

To avoid swinging to either of these extremes will sometimes be hard. You’ll have periods when meetings and offsite days will take place out of the office for longer than you’d like or moments where an employee needs some close attention. However, it’s important to reflect on this regularly and much like a clutch, you’ll know when you’ve found that perfect bite.

How does motivation work?

Much like your management style employee motivation swings between two poles: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Both are needed for an optimal, productive and happy workforce.

1. Intrinsic motivation

This is simpler than it sounds. Intrinsic just means naturally, or from within. So intrinsic motivation is referring to an individual personal drive to complete a task. This type of motivation is most effective as it’s self-fulfilling. If a person wants to do something, they’ll need very little encouragement to do it.

Speak to any psychologist and they’ll tell you the same thing: intrinsic motivation is pretty much a vision of pure productivity and can be either positively motivated or in response to a negative outcome.

A positive example would be something like competitive sports. In a game of tennis, an individual can push themselves to the absolute limit for an internalised yet arbitrary reward: the feeling of winning. Another good example is reading. Despite it being challenging, and time-consuming individuals push themselves to read books because of the achievement, satisfaction, and stimulation it provides.

Avoiding a negative outcome might be illustrated by quitting smoking. This takes a lot of perseverance, commitment, and willpower, it’s a task that smokers undergo, not because they love the idea but to save their health. The element of fear is key here. But as a general rule, positive motivation always outweighs negative.

However, the obvious question here is what intrinsically motivates people? It’s all very well saying ‘it comes from within’ but what are influences? Does it have to always be a self-determined goal, or can it be realised? Is passion alone enough to inspire people?

2. Extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is an idealist vision of productivity. Sure we’d all love to have a workforce that all want to perform at the top of their game because they want to but the fact of the matter is people need more than just their own determination to complete certain tasks.

This basically defines extrinsic motivation: an external influence that gives individuals clearer, delineated goals. If you’ve ever spent time with bodybuilders, or fitness fanatics, they’ll tell you this type of structure is essential. It’s all very well having the desire to get ripped, or fit, however, to achieve this, you need concrete goals often set by others. It’s why the personal trainer industry is so huge.

Typically, in the workplace, this is the role of a manager to implement a carrot and stick formula for workers. On the one hand, there needs to be set goals, objectives, and deadlines to help produce and structure motivation. On the other, it’s also important to have incentives, rewards and clear career progression to help entice employees to push themselves.  

Extrinsic motivation can often appear as problematic or undesirable when placed at odds with intrinsic motivation but in reality, both are equally as important.

4 steps to ensure you have great employee motivation

The key to having consistently motivated staff is walking the line between these two points. It’s a delicate formula, one that has to be taken case-by-case but there are some broad pointers that should be included no matter what your model is:

1. Praise

Giving and receiving praise is one of the rare bridges between both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation as it acts both as an incentive and also as a source of inspiration. There’s always been debate around the validity of praising your employees but recently forward thinkers have acknowledged the importance of in-the-moment feedback. In fact, a study from the Harvard Business School has concluded that praise in the workplace can hugely benefit productivity.

This doesn't mean ignore failure. It’s important to acknowledge weaknesses but that should be the extent of it. The best managers will accept mistakes, or shortcomings at face value while focusing on and celebrating success. A balance known as "in the moment feedback". 

There is a tendency among managers to treat the everyday good work of employees as par for the course, and only seeing the extraordinary as deserving in praise. However, this isn’t an accurate reflection of the accumulative effort that goes into tasks. In team sports, it’s not just the scorer that is given credit, each player will have contributed in a vital way to make the goal happen. The same logic applies in the workplace if you only reward the goal-scorers, teamwork, and morale will take a dive.

2. Passion

While it’s true that intrinsic motivation comes from within, it’s not immune from external influence. Much of the time to access that inner motivation, you need to be inspired. However, creating a passionate workforce doesn’t happen spontaneously: it needs to come from management.

As always, leading by example is paramount, particularly when it comes to motivating your staff. If you want to tap into their inner drive, it’s about creating a dynamic vision of the company. Think: why should your employees be excited about their job?

3. Reward

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that passion isn’t quite enough to sustain motivation. Important though passion is, it doesn't pay the bills. Alongside zeal, you need a remuneration package that satisfies the more economic aspects of human nature. This is why making sure you have a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is so important.  We’re all a little mercantile deep down, it's why people take promotions and change jobs, even if they’re happy in their current role.

This being said a pay cheque is not quite dynamic enough in itself. It’s vital of course to pay your employees enough for them to feel valued but ideally having something extra to show your appreciation as an employer is what is needed. You have to remember that every job pays (many even pay them fairly), so what can you give your people that will make them feel valued?

4. Switching off

Motivation is finite. A good analogy is a car battery; If you leave the engine on for too long, the battery will go flat. The same is true of employee burnout. If there isn’t time for them to recharge, their productivity will flatline. Working hard and being motivated has a cut-off point, after which an employees’ energy moral and concentration drop off radically.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix or a way to sidestep this. Humans need downtime. So one of the best ways to motivate your staff, both extrinsically and intrinsically, is to simply encourage a healthy work/life balance. On a basic level, this means making sure people clock off when they are meant to. Presenteeism is the Achilles heel of motivation; it may look good but in reality, it’s a diluting force to focus.

Bigger gestures include encouraging your employees to take their ascribed annual leave. It rarely gets talked about but there can exist an undercurrent of social stigma and judgment when it comes to going on holiday. Of course, there are times where it is and isn’t appropriate to take annual leave but ultimately it’s there to be used. Encouraging this can be as simple as taking holiday yourself (employees rarely feel bad about doing something their boss does).

None of this is rocket science, the terminology might sound a little too academic but basically we know all of this to be true: sometimes we motivate ourselves and other times some else does. What’s important to take away from this is often the two often feed into one another. Motivation is all about having a balance between personal goals and company goals. In between the two, there’s a sweet spot of common ground.

To find out more about creating a truly motivating workforce, click below: 


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