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Employee Motivation: The Role of Leadership

August 13, 2021

One of the most common challenges of a leader is keeping their team motivated and engaged. Possessing a deep understanding of people´s motivational drivers and creating a culture of motivation are aspects that put the best leaders above the rest.

According to Frederik Herzberg, who authored the famous Theory of two factors, we can divide motivation in two categories: Extrinsic and Intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is based on the individual’s desire to obtain an external reward, such as public recognition, something material, money, status or avoiding punishment. To understand this motivation, let’s explore its origin. In the second half of the 19th century, during the industrial era, extrinsic motivation was widely used to incentivize people to perform tasks. The behavioral theory was taking its first steps, and it advocated that rewards or punishment, if applied systematically, would condition and reinforce the response of individuals as a way of anticipating future punishments or rewards. For example, a monthly paycheck would lead to higher motivation and therefore greater productivity. Herzberg called this the “Hygiene factors.”

Intrinsic motivation is determined by internally generated factors that make individuals behave in a particular way in the search of a specific direction. The individual is not dependent on external factors such as context, environment, or someone´s opinion to perform the specific task. Herzberg names these, “Motivation factors.” In 1981, psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan created the Self-Determination Theory, which identifies three basic motivational areas: Competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Together, these characteristics produce more long-lasting results.

Competency is the continuous desire to improve and master what we do. If we are motivated mainly by mastery, we probably believe that our potential is unlimited, and we will constantly look to perfect our skills through learning and practice. When we are motivated by the quest for mastery, we want to achieve it through our own means. As Andy Murray mentioned: “My job is to try to reach my potential to the fullest.”

Autonomy is the compel to decide on one’s own life and work. To be totally motivated, we must have control over what we do, when we do it and with whom we do it. Quoting José Mourinho: “As a leader, I don’t tell a player to go left or go right. I am not Waze.”

Relatedness is our need to have close relationships and be connected to others, as well as the search to accomplish something bigger than ourselves—to contribute to things that matter. People may become disengaged at work if they can’t understand or participate in the company mission. Those who believe that they are working for something bigger and more important than themselves are generally more hard-working, productive and committed.

It is our human nature to be autonomous, self-oriented and focused on the things that matter most. It is the combination of relatedness, autonomy and competence that makes work more exciting. As Confucius said: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

Nevertheless, to have our team members focused on their professional and personal development and the quest for connection and autonomy, we must ensure that the two first tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (physiological and safety needs) are guaranteed. The needs at the lower level of the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can pay attention to the needs of higher levels. This means that it only makes sense to explore other motivational drivers if physiological needs (food, house, clothing) and safety needs (at work) are not a daily concern. If we struggle to pay our bills, buy food, or guarantee the safety of close ones, our reptilian brain will enter survival mode. Then, exploring other motivation factors is like talking about Curling: We know this sport exists, we heard it has a lot of fans, but we don’t care to understand.

Therefore, in a professional setting, the extrinsic motivation is mandatory. If we achieve this, we can then start looking for the conditions that will enable our team members to reach a state of Flow, popularized in 1990 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his investigation, he concluded that, despite economical and productive growth, the percentage of happiness remained the same: 30%. Economic incentive does not promote long term happiness. On the other hand, individuals that felt challenged and in control of their decisions had the highest rates of happiness.

As leaders, how can we help promote the motivation of our team members? Here are some examples:

  1. Incentive and recognition: 
    1. Attractive salary package
    2. Benefits plan
    3. Incentive Scheme
    4. Culture of recognition
  2. Competency:
    1. Provide coaching and feedback sessions
    2. Promote personal and professional development
    3. Prioritize internal growth
    4. Measure competencies through periodic reviews
  3. Autonomy: 
    1. Promote a “culture of error”
    2. Support team members individual projects (internal entrepreneurship)
    3. Set collaborative development goals
    4. Offer time flexibility
  4. Connection: 
    1. Establish mission, vision, and values in a collaborative way
    2. Involve team members in social responsibility initiatives
    3. Support local community events
    4. Create moments of give and help

Some leaders confuse incentive (extrinsic) with motivation (intrinsic), or think that one is more important than the other. As humans, we depend on a combination of both. As leaders, our mission is not to give motivation, but to create an environment in which our team members can pursue autonomy, mastery and a purpose that connects them with others. This will lead to a more energetic and productive team, less burnout and turnover, and above all else, more real motivation.