Unpacking Motivation

Ever found yourself asking this question? It’s one that I am often asked, usually by someone who is frustrated with an employee who seems to have a lot of motivation issues, and usually when the asker has already decided that the answer to the question is “YES.”

Now it is possible that there are personality disorders, mental illness and addictions in the way of workplace motivation. If that is what you suspect is at the root of your unmotivated employee, I will address it in another article. Potential health issues aside, I suggest we don’t really understand motivation and that is why so many workplaces have problems with it. To remedy this issue, let’s look into the motivation question more deeply to see what it really is and what ingredients are necessary for it to occur in the workplace.

Motivation and Environment

Brandon Ching, a scholar who summarized studies about motivation, concluded that there are 4 key characteristics of motivation that can help us to better understand how it works:

  1. Motivation is goal directed. Imagine a baby trying to reach a toy when first learning to crawl. Desire to get to the toy is the motivation and the toy is the goal. In the workplace this can be trying to meet a particular target that was set by the employee.
  2. Motivation outlines the achievement and pursuit of goals. This means that if you are motivated, you will keep strategizing until you achieve your objective.
  3. Motivation is environmentally dependent. If the environment discourages individuals, puts obstacles in the path of reaching the goal, or doesn’t even show employees where they are going, or why and how they are expected to get there, motivation will be lower.
  4. The more motivated you are to get to your goal, the more likely you will make it happen. You’ll initiate changes and improvements, take new directions or innovate to reach the goal, put in extra time, focus and effort to get there, and persevere when the going gets tough.

Other studies have shown that there is another ingredient involved in motivation that is born out of the effort to persevere and reach the goal when faced with obstacles: CREATIVITY. Getting through an obstacle course of issues blocking goal achievement is essentially a creative process, so it’s fair to say that motivation and creativity complement each other:


Motivation engenders creativity. Creativity is motivating. They go together.


To continue the summary, Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef wrote:

“In poverty there is an enormous creativity.

You cannot be an idiot if you want to survive.”

“Growth is a quantitative accumulation.

Development is the liberation of creative possibilities.”

So far we’ve concluded that motivation is sourced internally, and that it naturally leads to creativity, but we haven’t looked at other factors that influence motivation: enter environment.

The external environment can enhance or diminish both motivation and creativity quite significantly, and it is something that employers do have extensive control over. Consider your own experience: Are you happier and more likely to want to dive into a task if you are in an ugly, broken down, dirty, depressing place surrounded with negative, angry people, or when you have a clean, well-kept, bright place surrounded with kind, helpful people?

Motivation can be dampened or stunted by discouragement, lack of confidence, and fear of making mistakes. In the workplace it is also very closely attached to management skill, training opportunities and how much meaningful work is attached to the job.

For example, in the literature review of a Kenyan study by Mary Elector Odukah[1], South African doctors felt underutilized and over-educated for the tasks they were asked to perform. They felt that the work was something people with less training could easily have done and this was highly demotivating to them.

Another example: studies have measured substantial decrease in overall employee motivation when people begin talking about their intention to leave their jobs. In other words, the moment an employee decides to leave a workplace, motivation to do the work plummets and the demotivating effect transfers to other employees even if they do not know their colleague intends to leave.

So what do both these studies tell us? They show that motivation is intimately connected to human needs. Take a look at the list of human needs below:

  • Subsistence
  • Protection
  • Affection
  • Understanding
  • Participation
  • Leisure
  • Creation
  • Identity
  • Freedom

These needs are not to be interpreted as a hierarchy: if we have what we need to subsist, it does not automatically mean we go to “higher” needs such as identity, creativity, or freedom. Rather, you’ve probably already noticed that all these needs are intertwined. Circumstances can cause one or the other to rise to the top, but generally they all work together.

Consider how tortured prisoners will refuse food when it is given to them in a way that insults their sense of self and dignity. Or how often those with the least to share show the most generosity. Think of how 300 years of slavery in the US did not erase the human need for freedom or the practice of creativity among enslaved peoples.

No matter how much people suffer, they still find ways to laugh, play games and have fun, even if it happens less frequently than in times of less suffering.

There is a lot for employers and managers to learn in this lesson. I suggest pondering this list and seeing what you can encourage in your workplace to see visible evidence that some of these needs are being met. Protection is an obvious one: it is difficult to feel motivated at work if you feel unsafe, but don’t stop there. Consider the others too.

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Doing Motivation Right


While some employers entirely miss the opportunities they have to create an environment that engenders motivation, others solely focus on giving rewards to employees to try motivate them to do things they don’t want to do. Company swag, bonuses and extra vacation time, however, do NOT get people motivated. In fact, these extrinsic motivators actually serve to demotivate the motivated AND further lessen the motivation of those already struggling in this area.

A more promising approach is to focus on matching natural intrinsic motivations of individuals and the needs of the business. IF we:

  • Fill employees’ need to create
  • Give people some freedom of choice
  • Provide chances for our team to participate and feel that they belong
  • Encourage contributions toward business goal development
  • Ask for help defining and addressing workplace needs

THEN we are more likely to be successful than trying to force individuals to do something they have no motivation to accomplish.

Human beings are like magnets attracted to purpose, meaning and self-definition. Offering material benefits as a substitute for meeting real human needs will fail EVERY time.

Digging deeper, either you are moving towards a goal you want or you are avoiding or resisting something you don’t want. Both are intrinsic processes, and perhaps now you are beginning to see that “extrinsic motivation” as it is generally considered is a contradiction of terms. The truth is that you don’t motivate anyone: they have to find the motivation within themselves, and most of that comes simply from just “being able to do my job.” Work itself can be highly motivating for most people.

Where you can help is in creating an environment that is conducive to motivation. When that happens, employees are more likely to be engaged and perform not only what they are expected to do, but much more than what duty requires. This is commonly referred to as “discretionary engagement,” and here’s why it works: a motivated employee is not counting the minutes to the end of the work day, but striving to do the job well no matter what it takes. To encourage the natural growth of this kind of motivation, I already mentioned that good management skill, access to training, and being able to do the work you are expecting to do are all environmental motivation factors.

Eric J Romero has another important point to avoiding the problem of “unmotivated employees.” He suggests:

“Rather than hiring people and then trying to motivate them, which is ineffective, hire individuals who will be motivated by the job itself. Doing so will allow you to focus on leading them rather than pushing them to do their work.

When you focus on leading, you will be able to move the organization toward fulfilling its vision and securing competitive advantage.”

What’s helpful about this statement is the emphasis it places on choosing the right person for the right job before they even start. THEN it becomes your job to foster an environment that allows the employee to do that job. Since it is so important to motivation to actually be able to do the work you are hired to do, why not hire people who want to be there in the first place? (TinyPulse has a great tip sheet article about how to identify high performing employees HERE)

Additionally, Emma Sepala says inspiration, kindness and self-care are the building blocks that characterize a highly motivating workplace. In practice, this does not have to be complicated:

  • Say encouraging and inspiring things to others
  • Choose to be empathetic
  • Be kind and courteous to others
  • Encourage people to take breaks, get enough sleep, exercise and rest

Because an environment of encouragement and kindness is critical to motivation, it isn’t surprising that these practices help create happy, engaged employees who get more work done to a higher quality standard than do employees who are driven and harassed to produce…You surely can drive call center and bank employees to attain impossibly high sales quotas and berate them when they don’t reach them and you will see a spike in sales – temporarily. But wouldn’t it be better to challenge employees to meet a team goal they have set and that they have to found the best practices for so they can teach other teams about what they learned? Wouldn’t it be better to watch your sales increase in a sustained way?


Pulling it all together


When you think about motivating others, it’s important to focus on the elements you can control. The combination of:

  • Hiring the right employee for the right job
  • Creating an environment conducive to sustained motivation
  • Providing proper training and good management
  • Showing kindness, empathy, and encouraging self-care
  • Designing the challenge of the work itself

ALL add up to increase employee engagement and give you a more focused approach to attaining your business goals.

So here is my question to you now:

Which of these five ingredients from the motivation recipe is missing from your workplace secret sauce?

Motivation is not dependent upon one thing only. It is a result of mixing the right ingredients and then ensuring that the surroundings and temperature encourage the natural chemical reactions among those ingredients to occur. If you are experiencing motivation issues with your workforce, check that you have the right ingredients and then check that the surrounding temperature allows your sauce to develop its flavour, texture and appeal. Happy mixing!

Got more questions?

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