Motivation and engagement at work (part 1)

We constantly talk about motivation and engagement at work, but do we really understand what they mean? I’ve been fascinated by these two topics ever since Uni and now that I work as a Recruiter, they constantly come up in my discussions. It got me to reflect over the years on how these two concepts are so different but also very similar in some ways…

Part 1: The multifaceted nature of Motivation

We tend to talk about motivation as if it was some sort of personality trait. The thing is… motivation is not an emotional state or a personal attribute. For the nerds in the room, motivation comes from the Latin movere, which means to move. It was initially conceptualized as the motor that puts us in motion. Think about it. If you feel motivated, it is by something. It just doesn’t make sense to refer to someone or yourself as a motivated person.

There are many definitions of motivation and tons of research. You’ve most likely heard of Maslow before? His Hierarchy of Needs is one example of the Content Models of Motivation. These models were built to explain the “what” of motivation. They suggest that our motivation is based on acquiring the things we need. Like when you find the energy in the middle of a cold night to go get a pack of chips from the gas station. Pure motivation in action.

💡You have to understand what someone wants and needs to understand their motivation.

Maslow is well-known in the corporate world for his pyramid but sadly less for who he was: a psychologist and a humanist. He was interested in learning what makes people happy and his work influenced the currently-trending Positive Psychology movement. He based his infamous Hierarchy of Needs on his clinical experience, with the intent of developing a philosophical conception of motivation — not a ready-to-go tool for consultants… (Sorry Abraham, we failed you. It’s all about Brené Brown and Simon Sinek now.)

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Herzberg and his Two Factor Theory brought another perspective on the “what” of motivation. He considers that certain factors are consistently related to motivation, while others are associated with dissatisfaction and demotivation only.

  • Motivation factors: it’s the job characteristics that employees will find intrinsically rewarding and that will encourage them to work harder. Factors include: sense of achievement, recognition, meaningfulness of the work, responsibility, growth, and promotion opportunities.
  • Hygiene factors: these characteristics won’t encourage employees to work harder but they could cause them to be dissatisfied and unmotivated if they were not present. Factors include: company policies, physical working conditions, salary and benefits, job security.

I like this model because it highlights job enrichment and recognition as motivation factors and that’s another theme that comes up frequently in my interviews: “I don’t feel recognized in my job”, “I don’t have any growth opportunity”… That’s why initiatives like employee award programs, feedback training, or peer recognition platforms are so important. You need to find the right balance of course (sending high fives to your team every single day will make them meaningless) but it’s really important to think of how recognition and other factors identified by Herzberg can influence motivation.

💡You should identify which motivation factors are most important to someone if you want to influence their motivation at work.

Herzberg also argues that having a good salary and benefits policy is not what will motivate employees. It might sound controversial but his point is: these policies are essential to the existence of motivation because their absence would cause demotivation. In his perspective, companies should invest time and effort in building them, but with a clear intent to create the right conditions for motivation to thrive — not to influence it directly. At best… a good salary policy will avoid employees from feeling unmotivated. There are clear limits here (e.g. sales roles and commissions) but he makes a good point.

Another school of motivation is the Process Models, which came a bit later to study the “how” and “why” of motivation. They aim to study and explain the mechanism that makes us move from an intention to action. One popular model is Adams’ Equity Theory. He considers that people are motivated by the reward they receive for their effort. I’ll happily whip egg whites for 6 minutes and risk tendonitis for the reward of a good homemade Mousse au Chocolat.

However, according to Adams, we tend to compare our situation to the ones of our colleagues. Therefore, our sense of justice will regulate our motivation. Why should I work my ass off to whip eggs by hands when my colleagues have access to a modern kitchen mixer for the same Mousse au Chocolat reward? Don’t ask again why French people always go on strike. Now you know…

💡 You need to pay attention to someone’s sense of fairness and the reward they get for their effort if you want to understand their motivation at work.

I really like Adams’ theory because it comes up frequently in my interviews. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard candidates saying that they don’t feel fairly rewarded in their job. Whether this is true or not isn’t the question. If that’s how they feel, they may decide to lower their contribution, ask for a salary increase, or… leave their job (and come talk to me 😉).

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Another theory from the Process Models school is Locke and Latham’s Goal-Setting Theory. They also studied the “how” and “why” of motivation but came up with a different approach. They suggest that working toward a goal is the main source of motivation at work. It is quite contemporary to the way we view motivation in our organizations nowadays: the notorious OKRs and SMART goal-setting methods are based on the same idea.

Locke and Latham define five principles for goal-setting:

  1. Clarity: goals need to be clear, concise, and specific.
  2. Challenge: goals need to be challenging (to a reasonable extent).
  3. Commitment: people should understand and agree to the goals.
  4. Feedback: people should receive timely and accurate feedback.
  5. Task complexity: the goal should be broken into bite-size chunks.

💡 Adopting the right process when setting someone’s goals can positively drive their motivation.

This approach also constitutes a strong occurrence in my interviews. Very often I hear candidates say that they’re looking for a new job because they don’t have clear goals, don’t receive feedback, or because their job isn’t challenging anymore. While most companies use sophisticated goal-setting models, I witness every day how some managers fail to apply them at an individual level…

These theories aren’t perfect or infallible but they have the merit of offering a framework to help us understand motivation in the workplace. They should guide our thinking, and help us start a discussion. It’s common for Data Scientists to use books and research in their everyday job. Why don’t we do it more often when it comes to people management?

When hiring, understanding the ‘what’ of a candidate's motivation is essential to assess whether or not they’ll be happy in this particular role and in the team. When managing a team, understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of their motivation is key to set the right conditions for them to thrive.

There are more models of motivation that would deserve to be mentioned, but with the Content and Process models we have learned some essential facts about motivation:

  • Motivation is a movement, which means it comes and goes. I’m sure you can see how sometimes you feel very motivated and then very demotivated within the same day.
  • Motivation can be directly influenced, by goal-setting methods, recognition programs, or career opportunities. You’ve probably identified with these theories what tends to influence your motivation the most?
  • Motivation will thrive with certain conditions, namely a fair effort-reward balance, good company policies, etc. If your sense of justice is as high as mine, you can probably see how important these conditions are.

I’ll talk about engagement, the similarities, and the differences with motivation in part 2. I know… the suspense is KILLING you. Make yourself a good Mousse au Chocolat and I’ll see you soon 👋

French Recruiter, living in beautiful New Zealand. I write stories about recruitment, unconscious bias, inclusion and diversity.

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