The True Motivational Drivers for Employees, and Why They Matter for Any Company

Alison Rhoades

Whether you are working as a marketing manager, a ballet dancer, or a taxi driver, we all have motivational drivers that get us out of bed in the morning and allow us to achieve our goals. These may be providing for our family, learning new skills, or making a difference in the world. Unsurprisingly, not everyone is motivated by the same things, a fact which is critical for companies to understand in order to achieve true success.

According to Susan M Heathfield, “An individual's motivation is influenced by biological, intellectual, social and emotional factors. As such, motivation is a complex, not easily defined, and intrinsic driving force that can also be influenced by external factors.” With the average worker spending 21% of their total waking hours working over the course of their lives, it’s all the more critical that employees’ motivational drivers are taken seriously so that those hours can be spent feeling productive and happy. Demotivated employees can also cost companies money, with a Gallup survey estimating that in the US, between $450 and $550 billion is lost in the US to low productivity each year due to lack of motivation in the workplace.

Nicolas T. Deuschel was inspired to study motivational drivers after his experience working as the global HR vice president at a fortune 500 company, where the lack of motivation and high turnover were palpable. He wanted to understand why his team was so dysfunctional and unmotivated while other teams in the company flourished, and embarked on an ambitious doctoral research project.

Originally, Nicolas tried to predict performance based on how managers rewarded employees. However, he soon realized that motivation drivers better explained why some people performed well at work and others did not. Through his research, he discovered that core human motivations could be narrowed down to two broad categories:

“The idea about these motivational drivers is that despite hundreds of personality traits, motivations, or different styles of thinking one can have, they more or less come down to two basic motivation needs: security and growth.”

If you are motivated by security, he explains, you want to create stability for yourself and your family. You are risk averse and value a consistent paycheck, have a desire for predictable outcomes, and seek stability in your workplace. Conversely, those of us motivated by growth are eager to expand our horizons and take risks to achieve success. We will likely take a job that allows us to learn new skills and be more successful. The focus is less on money and more on not missing out on opportunities, therefore those in this group will not hesitate to leave a company if another opportunity presents itself.

Obviously, Nicolas qualifies, you can be motivated by both factors, but the general population clusters into those two types, with roughly half of people being motivated by security and the other half by growth. Whatsmore, employees are not only motivated by the outcome of a goal, like a paycheck, but by how they achieve their goals and the feelings they experience as a result:

“Some of us are driven to work diligently on attaining a sales quota so we can support our families, while others will be driven to achieve a sales target so they can advance to a new position. While the outcome is the same, the way we motivate ourselves in the process and what we experience once we reached our goal differs. So managers should look at this fundamental difference in the experience to motivate their employees.”

The consequences for companies of understanding the motivational drivers of their employees are huge. Thus, not only should managers recognize that people’s motivational drivers differ, but also evaluate if their workplace fits to the employees’ working style.

Nicolas gives the example of a startup that participated in his research who was constantly changing, growing, and evolving. Nevertheless, employees were continuously leaving. What they found out through their assessments is that at least a third of employees, despite being engaged and working hard, were actually not motivated by growth, but by security. “They were absolutely overwhelmed by this whole startup culture,” he says.

While each individual’s motivational drivers are deeply ingrained, the workplace can determine if a given employee’s drivers can match the environment of the company. Leaders play an important role, as does the company’s culture, which can impact stress levels when it differs from the drivers of its staff. “Those who are motivated by security are more likely to feel stress,” says Nicolas. “So we actually measured the stress level in one start-up, and we could see a very clear relationship between those who had a high need for security and their stress levels. We could also see that people who had leaders who were effective were much less stressed. So, leaders can somehow absorb or balance the stress of their workers.”

If motivational drivers are so critical, you would think that companies would be looking closely at them in their employees and evaluating their impact. However, Nicolas says that so far companies aren’t spending time focusing on their employees’ motivation, especially as they use the ‘one-size-fits-all' approach to improve their employee’s effectiveness:

“Those in leadership roles just have this general feeling that people have the same motivation type as them. We need to make sure that both those driven by security and growth are managed correctly, meaning that a leader is not just driven by what he or she thinks, but by what employees really need.”

Most importantly, managers and companies can improve engagement at work, and given the effect on profits, they really should. For example, a 2015 study published in MIT Sloan with 30 companies showed that overall strategies to improve employee engagement significantly improved profit. For nearly a third of companies, the effects were dramatic, with profits increasing by 20% when employees moved from low levels of work engagement to medium levels.

Workplace assessments across a company, Nicholas says, can give employers a tangible picture of:

1. How their employees are motivated 2. Whether the company caters to or ignores their employees’ motivational drivers 3. How they can maximize effectiveness with tools that fit to their employees’ needs

Thus, Nicolas has developed a survey to be given in companies that can help paint a picture of the motivational drivers of every employee so that employers can evaluate the ratio of employees with particular motivations and adapt their practices accordingly:

“I think it’s very good that you see it in black and white. If half of my company is motivated by growth and half is really motivated by security, safety, and a predictable future, what can we do to cater to those needs? I want to stress: there’s no good or bad here. All types are important, because if you would only have achievers and people who want to grow, we wouldn’t get everything done. You want a balance.”

The goal for Nicolas is to not only help improve the lives of employees, but to demonstrate the link between motivated employees, low turnover, and higher company profits. The aim is then to facilitate targeted interventions to help the company achieve its goals and keep its employees happy. As companies reckon with a world in which changes are coming right and left, it is all the more critical that they prioritize their workers, who will be the driving force propelling them to success.

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