2 Surprising Sources of Employee Motivation—And It's Not What You Think

Need to decide on how to reward your employees for a project completed well? What’s the first thing that came to your mind? A bonus? A raise?

Too many managers and bosses believe that money is an effective reward and incentive for doing one’s best work. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. Alarming numbers, such as 60 percent of Millennials wishing to quit their jobs, and current workplace trends attest to this, too. Money does not guarantee employee retention.

In Payoff, Dan Ariely’s latest book, Ariely poses important theories that all human resource managers should study. The bottom line? Money is not a good enough motivator. Ariely is a professor at Duke University in behavioral economics, a bestselling author, and lecturer. His TED talks that have been watched over 7.8 million times. His fifth book showcases studies and research he has conducted on “The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations.” (This is also the subtitle of his book.)

So what should all human resource departments know about keeping employees satisfied and motivated? Here are two surprising sources of motivation revealed in Payoff:

Motivation factor no. 1: We desire control.

Ariely poses that many of our motivations stem from a desire to conquer a sense of helplessness and gain control over our lives. Consider the base reason for gaining employment. Money is a commodity that is necessary for daily living. Without money we have no ability to control our lives. Money is thus a primary way in which individuals gain control over their lives. Yet, what if two jobs provide the same salary? The job that provides the employee with more control over how their job affects their personal life becomes the more appealing offer.

But what happens when individuals feel a loss of control over their work? Dissatisfaction and disengagement result, says Ariely. Loss of control coupled with demanding work has also been associated with increased rates of stress in the workplace.

How can employers give more control to employees? Some ideas include encouraging personalized workstations. Allowing them to decide on a work-from-home day, etc. Work-life balance is a tricky field to navigate. But the more an employer can show flexibility in this area, the more control an employee will feel over his life, and the happier your employee will be.

Motivation factor no. 2: We desire recognition.

Ariely conducted the following study while he served as professor at MIT. Three groups of subjects were given sheets of paper and asked to find 10 instances of two consecutive letters. They would be paid $0.55 for doing so. After completing the first page, the students were asked if they would be willing to complete a second page for 5¢ less. And on it went.

In the first group, the subjects were asked to write their name on each sheet turned in. The examiner would look at the paper and then file it away. In the second group, the students were not asked to write their names on the paper, and the examiner did not glance at the paper they turned in. In the third group, the students also were not asked to write their name on the paper, but in this group the examiner shredded their work in front of them.

It comes as no surprise that those in the first group continued working for far longer than those in the second and third group. What this can teach HR managers is clear: Acknowledgement and recognition is an often overlooked aspect of motivation. So how does an HR manager provide the kind of acknowledgement that an employee desires? It doesn’t need to be by means of a bonus. Acknowledgement can be given through public recognition on an internal social media platform. Personal help can mean a lot, too, such as providing legwork to find a reputable modern wedding venue. Tickets to a coveted event. Or even just a word of thankfulness from the boss. It’s the acknowledgement that counts.

Put the checkbook away and instead consider the deeper needs of employees for lasting results.

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