What Motivates People?

It’s an age-old question. After all, most CEOs, Directors, managers, and team leaders are looking for the answer so that they can get their employees and teams to perform their best.

One of the most common ways to motivate people in a business setting is through incentives and rewards. The most common example is establishing a bonus structure, which could be a production bonus, profit sharing, or commissions on sales.

The problem with incentives and rewards, however, is that they’re extrinsic motivators.

Problems with Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivators are designed to get someone to do what you want them to do, such as sell more products or produce more leads. It’s a tried and true method of motivation, but it has its drawbacks. First and foremost it can be expensive, especially if you have a large team.

In addition to financial cost, it can also cause you to lose your best employees. That’s right! Extrinsic motivators, or rewards, can cost you employees in the long run. These rewards work great in the short term, especially when they’re brand new, but the effects can wear off quickly and leave your employees frustrated.

If employees aren’t intrinsically motivated to do their work, they’ll soon face burnout and boredom. When your employees reach this stage, they’ll likely produce less, become disinterested in their work, and possibly begin looking for a new job.

Intrinsic Motivation is the Key

Intrinsic motivation is the seldom-mentioned answer to this age-old question of what motivates people.

Intrinsic motivations are the reasons people choose to do things on their own because of some internal reward they receive. You can learn more about internal and external motivation here.

Some people volunteer on the weekends because it’s fulfilling. Volunteering allows them to connect to other people and it gives them a sense of purpose and community.

Others find motivation in solving and overcoming challenges, so they seek work that is difficult and keeps them learning. They’re the ones seeking mastery in their craft.

A similar group of people loves a sense of accomplishment, so they enjoy a hard days work and the feeling of productivity and progress.

photo of a group of young professionals working together and reviewing a document

Intrinsic Motivation in the Workplace

Unfortunately, many intrinsic motivators are missing from the workplace, or employees are in jobs that aren’t congruent with their motives, and that’s why so many people disengage from their work.

There are numerous types of intrinsic motivators, and finding out what motivates your employees is the key to sustained performance over time. It’s an investment for the long term, but how can we as leaders learn what drives the people around us?

While researching that very question, I found various articles with loads of advice, but below are the two strategies that stuck out to me the most.

1. Get to Know Your Employees

The first thing you can do is meet with your employees often. Get to know them on a personal and professional level as best you can. Make time for your employees if they ever need to talk to you. As a leader, making time for your employees is a great way to build a trusting relationship.

During your one of your conversations you can ask them this question:

Which of these is most important to you when it comes to your work?

a) Having a sense of purpose in your job;
b) Being autonomous, and able to make your own decisions;
c) Feeling a challenge;
d) Mastering some subject area or discipline;
e) Camaraderie, and making social connections with others; or
f) Recognition and acclaim.

The answer might surprise you, and you may find that you’ve put someone in a role for which they could never be motivated to do well.

Think about a person looking for a challenge. What would happen if you were to put them in a monotonous job with little chance for continued learning?

What about the person looking for camaraderie and social connection? What would happen if you were to place them in an isolated job with no human interaction?

Providing these people with bonuses or external awards might boost their productivity for a short time, but it can’t last for long because it won’t be matching their intrinsic motives.

photo of a group of young professionals working together on a project.

2. Encourage Collaboration and Team Work

According to this article, there are five main types of intrinsic motivation:

  • Autonomy: “I control.”
  • Mastery: “I improve.”
  • Purpose: “I make a difference.”
  • Progress: “I achieve.”
  • Social Interaction: “I connect with others.”

Placing people in teams and allowing them to work together is a great way to bring intrinsic motivators to the surface.

If you define a clear objective and allow the team the autonomy (control) to work towards it in their own way, you’ll see them innovate, improve, challenge one another, build camaraderie, and achieve success.

Through this exercise and frequent touch points with your team, you will begin to see which type of intrinsic motivators each of your employees fall into and what drives them to do their best work.

So, What Motivates People?

The answer is not one-size-fits-all, and if you look, you’ll find countless answers, but the important thing to remember is that everyone is different. Great leaders aren’t ones who look for an easy answer or take temporary shortcuts.

Great leaders take responsibility for their team’s motivation and cast a vision for the future that everyone can buy into.

If you can help your employees understand how their contributions are adding value to the long term vision, then they will attack the job with a strong sense of purpose and ownership.

Meaningful motivation requires that leaders invest time and energy into their employees, but if you take the time, you’ll never have a problem of motivation again.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you. All opinions remain my own.

  • Great article! I think it’s also worth mentioning that as time passes, you should consider re-evaluating your employees the same way, to make sure that they still find motivation and satisfaction with their position. Keep the motivation fresh!
    You have them for 40-ish hours a week, but life outside of work may evolve what motivates them as well, and perhaps their needs have changed (and a shuffle or move or new assignment could reignite that motivational spark!).

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