What are the key motivators that make people do their jobs?
June 1, 2010 6:11 PM   Subscribe

What are the key motivators that make people do their jobs?

I'm talking about the 9-to-5 job. If I were a manager, what are the key itches I would need to scratch to get the most out of employees? What needs are relevant to people today that cause them to want to work at and keep their jobs? Are people primarily motivated by money and a need for security in their lives, or is there a more elusive answer?
posted by raddevon to Work & Money (26 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Please see this. Scroll down and watch the video with the cartoon characters all over it.
posted by grumblebee at 6:18 PM on June 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

In addition to the need for money and security, I am motivated by the following at my 9-5 job:

- the knowledge that the work that I do has an actual effect or wider impact, as opposed to being useless 'busywork' or time wasting;
- my competence being rewarded with increased responsibility and challenges;
- recognition by my managers of the work that I do;
- a reasonable amount of flexibility and independence, not being micro-managed;
- personal respect and a pleasant, courteous work environment.

I am also motivated by the opportunity to socialise with and get to know my colleagues (inside and outside working hours), but I realise this is not an option for all kinds of jobs. I'm pretty lucky in my current position as all these needs are fulfilled, so as a consequence I feel quite loyal to my organisation.
posted by Weng at 6:23 PM on June 1, 2010 [6 favorites]

I don't think your going to find a simple answer to your question. There are different kinds of people who are motivated by different things. Also age and other things can be a factor. For example, Generation Xers seem to require a lot more affirmation than their baby boomer parents.
posted by 14580 at 6:26 PM on June 1, 2010

Positive feedback. Praise. Thank yous.

I used to work with a manager who, after a particularly busy day, would look individuals in the eye and say things like "Thank you for all your hard work today," just before people left at the end of the day.

People would do so much extra work for her as a result, because they wanted to please her and make her happy, and because they felt seen and appreciated and valued.

Someone managers get all huffy "I shouldn't have to thank them, that's what I'm paying them for, the wage is a thank you,"

but regular, genuine thank yous and appreciation costs nothing, and is as motivating as a 15% pay rise.

Catch your staff doing good.

So many managers only ever talk to their staff to criticise.

Yes, of course sometimes you need to provide constructive criticism, but if your manager only ever tells you what you are doing wrong, and takes the 99% of the time that you do the right thing forgranted, pretty soon you start dreading coming into work.
posted by Year of meteors at 6:29 PM on June 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Personally I am more motivated by money than anything else. But an ideal job would also have these:

Constructive feedback
Adequate vacation time so I don't feel chained to my job
Appreciation for what I'm doing
Security (if that still exists these days)
posted by Anima Mundi at 6:40 PM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I used to work with a manager who, after a particularly busy day, would look individuals in the eye and say things like "Thank you for all your hard work today," just before people left at the end of the day.

This can totally backfire if it comes off as false, and from my perspective it always come off as false. Of course, I did that thing you asked me to do, it's my job. You thanking me is weird. It's like you're trying to get out of something, or trying to point out how awesome a boss you are, which is not something words turn one into. If I stay very late or go above and beyond call of duty then thank me. But otherwise regular raises and creating a culture that avoids weird power struggle mind games is the way to go. Obviously, Year of meteors and I would need to be handled differently, so paying attention to body language clues in a individual's response to a manager's handling is probably the way to go.

Generation Xers seem to require a lot more affirmation than their baby boomer parents.

I think I just disproved this theory.

I pretty much think Weng and Anima Mundi hit the nail on the head. But to expand on what I would want from a management ladder:

- a consistent neutral emotional state without random mood swings
- to know that I can bring mistakes I have caught to them without them getting defensive or attack-y depending on who's mistake it is and that we will work to solve the problem instead of attempting to lay blame
-monetary compensation appropriate to the quality of my output
-consistently applied understandable HR policies
-a focus on management and not control
-an ability to meta-cognate
-that they read and think about the skill of managing and try to be better at it over time
-adequate vacation and personal time so that life can be dealt with and the sensation of being trapped diminishes
-giving subordinates the benefit of the doubt when it comes to honest mistakes, but also knowing when to cut dead weight
posted by edbles at 6:49 PM on June 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Kind of already been covered, but I don't think you can overemphasize the idea of having work that matters, especially to the younger crowd. Not necessarily in some cosmic save-the-world sense, although that would definitely be nice, but people have got to know that what they're doing matters, at least within the context of the company, and that YOU, their manager, know it matters (i.e. appreciate how they're doing it).

If you ever give the impression that something they're doing doesn't matter, or at least that how they do it or the quality of the job they do doesn't matter, count on it being sluffed off from then on. And "the boss said do it this way" or "I need you to do it this way to keep me from getting in trouble" or even "Do it this way or get in trouble" are all relatively ineffective motivators. At best you'll get lip-service to the idea of doing it, and count on everything you can't see or measure getting swept under the rug.

Two reasons for this:

1) the abstract idea of authority isn't as strong as it used to be. "Do it for God/Country/Mom/Dad/the FSM" just gets kind of an inward laugh and a perverse wish to do it backwards. But the basic "golden rule" still holds enough sway that people don't want to do a crappy job on something that makes their fellow man's life crappier.

2) people are really good at gaming systems nowadays. Disconnect the real value of the job from some metric your company pulled out of its collective bunghole, and you'll find everyone working harder to screw up your metric than they would have doing what you wanted done in the first place if you had just asked them nicely and shown them the value of doing it.

I think this is one reason bigger companies have trouble motivating their troops - it's harder to see the value of your job the smaller a cog you are in the machine.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:56 PM on June 1, 2010

Nthing the flexibility, adequate vacation. Also nthing cutting dead weight (how do companies function?)

In addition to money,
• An opportunity to learn new information
• The tools to improve (observing how peers complete a project, a course, books, feedback from the supervisor or client)
• Cutting edge info that you can’t get anywhere else

Treating the employees humanely (eg, a quiet environment, don’t herd us like cows into pens (cube farms), don’t have people clock in or clock out, etc.). Just give the task, directions, and let people do their jobs.
posted by Wolfster at 6:57 PM on June 1, 2010

I think edbles hones in on something so important: a consistent neutral emotional state without random mood swings. I think about this often now that people report to me. The worse boss I ever experienced was a person so unbelievably moody, you never knew how to act, be, etc. Every day was a guessing game. So, regardless of how my weekend went, how I feel, I make a serious effort to be consistently upbeat and kind to the folks that work for me/support me so that they feel safe as well as supported in the challenges they face day to day.
posted by dmbfan93 at 6:58 PM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Alain De Botton says that most people have a sense of malaise from their work because they're completely disconnected from how it connects to the outside picture and helps others. (It's a great read.)

Daniel H. Pink's Drive is a must-read for you: it's all about lighting the internal spark, etc.
posted by blazingunicorn at 7:11 PM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Both Daniel Pink and Clay Shirky make the argument that intrinsic motivation has been subverted by extrinisc rewards in work situations. If you remove the "muddying" effect of extrinsic rewards, there is a huge, latent pool of effort that can be mobilized by intrinsic rewards. It's like Chris Anderson's Long Tail argument: if you remove the constraints imposed by market-driven structures, you get a long tail of effect. In this case, the effect is effort. Definitely worth reading this Wired article and the linked articles, which present a pretty convincing case.
posted by Susurration at 7:20 PM on June 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

what are the key itches I would need to scratch to get the most out of employees?
1. Consistent mood and behavior.
2. Positive and constructive feedback.
3. Let the experts be the experts. Don't try and compete with the smart people you hired.
4. Go above and beyond to repair, maintain, or supply necessary tools, equipment, facilities, consumables, and training. Work is hard enough without having to make due.
5. Feed your employees. Everyone loves snacks.
6. Don't make people rush. More than 90% of my mistakes are made when I'm rushing, and it's usually the result of someone else's scheduling problems. If time management is your responsibility, don't put your employees in a situation where they need to do fast and shoddy work to pick up your slack.
posted by Jon-o at 7:25 PM on June 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. money, or ability to eat and pay for a home
2. benefits, or ability to not end up dead ASAP if they come down with cancer
3. security, or being able not to worry that they will get canned every single day
4. reasonable amount of freedom. Which is to say, don't nitpick the shit out of your employees if they are 2 minutes coming back from lunch or act like a jerk and dock them an entire day's pay if they need to go to the doctor for an hour, and crap like that. Be a reasonable boss who does not expect the employees not to work like robots from 8-5. Please, no time card punching.
5. more than one week's vacation a year.
6. not having obscenely awful overtime.
7. pleasant coworkers who are not out to treat you like the fifth grade bully did.

After all of that, then I might care about my emotional needs and interest when it comes to work.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:28 PM on June 1, 2010

To elaborate on Jon-o's excellent point about consistent mood and behaviour, poor/inappropriate behavior or poor performance has to result in visible repercussions. No favourites.

Sometimes there isn't the resourcew to reward great teammembers, letting the poor performers drag along without some sort of visible censure can damage overall team morale.
posted by porpoise at 7:39 PM on June 1, 2010

I think a lot of good points have been covered, but I'll share what I learned in my last job (an English conversation company in Japan) from what they didn't do.

- Employees need to feel trusted and valued. This means working from the assumption that they are adults who can make their own decisions, and that the good decisions will be recognized, or they will be held accountable for the bad ones. Many of the places I've worked for saw the employees as antagonists who must be struggled against, rather than as essential parts of the system, and that never, ever helped performance.

- Company policies must be transparent, and clearly communicated to everyone - along with the reasoning behind them. If there is a flaw in the policy, there must be a channel thorough which concerns can be communicated. Management needs to make sure that the employees have all the information necessary to do their jobs, and employees need to be able to give management the information it needs to shape company policy. Without this, frustration, misunderstanding and tragic 11:00 news stories result.

- Employees need means through which they can discover internal motivations to do their jobs, whether it's working for the Greater Good, a fat paycheck, simple recognition, or just the feeling of a job well done. This means that management has to know employees as actual people, rather than names on a personnel file.

This can take the form of training or continuing education opportunities, a consistent job review system with clear and unambiguous standards, a clearly-defined path of advancement in the company (for those who want it - remember the Peter Principle), or simply the re-framing of a job description or project descriptions so that the employees can approach their work from the direction that best motivates them. ("Do this job and we'll pay you well" won't work well for someone who is motivated more by creative problem-solving, and "Here's a challenging puzzle for you" won't work on someone who's in it for the cash.)
posted by MShades at 7:46 PM on June 1, 2010 [5 favorites]

There have been some books that basically translate Maslow's hierarchy of needs into a business setting, and the one I agree with most is "First, Break All The Rules". Based on extensive interviews conducted in a range of work environments, they say people want:

1) To know what is expected of them at work.
2) To I have the materials and equipment they need to do their work right
3) To have the opportunity to do what they do best every day
4) To I receive recognition or praise for good work
5) To know that my supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about them as a person
6) To have someone at work who encourages their development
7) For their opinions to seem to count
8) For the mission/purpose of the company to make them feel like their work is important
9) To know that their co-workers are committed to doing quality work
10) To have a best friend at work
11) To regularly talk with someone about their progress
12) To have opportunity to learn and grow

You can see that some of these are the traditional work-related stuff, but some are social as well. The main thing, to me, is the finding that it's more important to put someone in a position where their skills are well-matched to the task at hand and give them the support they need as opposed to always trying to "fix" someone.

More good reading on the subject is Csikszentmihalyi
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:49 PM on June 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

Funny, I just sent my girlfriend this video: What Really Motivates Us?
posted by The Dutchman at 8:26 PM on June 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

These are the seven motivators often used when organizations are trying to bring about change (in no particular order):
Being right
Being first
Being of service
posted by Houstonian at 2:55 AM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whoa, clip The Dutchman links to is quite good! And safe for work, if anyone wondered.
posted by Houstonian at 5:41 AM on June 2, 2010

I am more motivated when I have the opportunity to do more higher-level, analytical work. While I tolerate more mechanical, number-monkey aspects of my job, I don't feel any intrinsic motivation to do them.
posted by Kurichina at 7:59 AM on June 2, 2010

I can't find the blog post where I read this, but if you wanted to distill it down to 3 "must-haves-or-I-will-be-very-unsatisfied", they would be:

1. Challenging tasks: responsibilities and projects that require you to learn and grow and acquire new skills, but not in a completely overwhelming way

2. Autonomy: the freedom to choose how, when, and at what priority to approach different tasks and complete projects

3. Merit based rewards: receiving better compensation, feedback, and recognition in proportion to how much harder you work

Anytime someone is unhappy with their job it's usually because one of the above is missing.

Lucky for me two of the above are missing at my current job...
posted by chalbe at 8:41 AM on June 2, 2010

Assuming all the things like money/benefits/vacation are average or above for the U.S. (no one wants to know their situation is worse than average), I, personally, have been happiest at jobs where:
1) We are not treated like children. No clock in/clock outs, no "check up" phone calls if I call in sick, no hugely intrusive internet monitoring etc.
2) That I can understand the value of what I'm doing
3) I am given the opportunity to get more or higher level responsibility or projects in the future
4) If I actually do a good job on something, I get good feedback.

I, too, feel like someone saying "I appreciate the work you did today," would come across as insincere if it happened every day, but that's different from being complimented or praised on a specific task. I never used to think this mattered to me until I had a boss that did not say "thanks," or "good job" once in over a year, even when I was working double time or over holidays to finish major projects. In fact, he gave consistently negative feedback on everything, because he believed that without criticism, people would never grow. The first time my new boss actually sent a little two line email thanking me for doing a good job on a project, I got all wobbly there for a minute at having positive feedback.
posted by wending my way at 9:16 AM on June 2, 2010

If you're planning on applying this knowledge, I would strongly caution you against a "one size fits all" approach to motivation—different people are motivated by different things. Some people love public (e.g., in front of the department or the whole company) praise, some aren't motivated by that at all. Get to know your employees individually, and give them whatever motivates each one. Heck, it's fine if you flat out ask them what motivates them.

That said, here is what motivates me (in no particular order):
* money
* flexibility in working hours
* generous vacation
* good health benefits (I might not have said this five years ago, but I've come to accept that I am now Middle-Aged™)
* low-to-moderate amount of interaction with others (I mostly like to work alone, but I don't want to be completely isolated)
* intellectually challenging and diverse work
* knowing I've helped someone, which entails positive feedback from customers. (Positive feedback from my supervisor, not so much.)
* relatively short projects (I'd rather work on a bunch of small projects than one big one)

At least a couple of the above (interaction level, project length) are exactly opposite to what will motivate some other people.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:05 AM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

I used to work with a manager who, after a particularly busy day, would look individuals in the eye and say things like "Thank you for all your hard work today," just before people left at the end of the day.

from my perspective it always come off as false

I think there are ways to do this that don't seem false, and I'm brainstorming them from times I would have liked to hear such thanks and didn't get it from previous bosses.

While I don't need thanks for showing up and doing my job as expected every day, an honest thanks after a particularly stressful day really does help. It's nice to know that the manager noticed that the day sucked, even if there's nothing he/she could do about it.

When a project is completed, whether it's something minor like emailing back with the facts requested by the boss, or something major like a year-long contract, say thanks. This has to be something more than the "Thanks, [boss's name]" signature that gets appended to every single email you ever send, if it's going to register with the employees. "Thanks for getting back to me so quickly." "Thanks for all your hard work on this project over the last year." "Thanks for dropping what you were working on and showing up to this meeting." It doesn't have to sound false. It doesn't have to BE false. Cultivate an attitude that your life would suck a lot more as a manager if your employees left and you had to find new ones, and then you can be honestly, genuinely thankful towards them, just for doing what's expected as part of their jobs.

In a meeting, where the boss is summarizing employee's work to the higher-ups: boss should say in front of employee and higher-ups, "[Employee] did a really great job putting this project together." "[Employee] worked really hard on this project, and I think the results are great." "[Employee] had this idea that I think would work really well." or whatever makes sense in the context.

When the employee has been putting in overtime or adjusting their schedule to make a project work, boss should thank employee and acknowledge the sacrifices employee is making in his/her personal life. "Hey, I know you'd rather be somewhere else on a Saturday, and I really appreciate you coming in to get this done." Even better, then mention why it MATTERS that employee is working extra hours: "[Client] is going to be so impressed when we meet this deadline, we'll have their business locked up forever." That way the employee isn't left to speculate and steam over arbitrary deadlines that require them to work extra hours for no good reason.

Do annual reviews with your employees, and make them mostly positive unless someone is really, really messing up. (And if they're really, really messing up, the boss should have talked to them long before it got that bad.) I worked for several small companies who didn't do annual reviews because they didn't have any money to offer raises, and the managers thought that was the only reason people would want an annual review. But people need to hear not only that they're doing a good job, but also that their manager notices that they're doing a good job. If hard work isn't noticed or appreciated, there's no reason to continue it. Having someone say "you're doing a good job" and "your work contributed to X, Y, and Z successes in the company this year" means a lot, even if you can't provide monetary compensation for those things. And NOT hearing those things means even more, because it makes employees feel unvalued. Employees who feel like their hard work isn't noticed, stop working hard.
posted by vytae at 12:05 PM on June 2, 2010

I think chalbe may have seen a blog about the "most highlighted passages" from the Kindle, which I was about to post myself.

"...three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying."

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers, seen here.
posted by Brian James at 5:12 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The company I work for just had a survey on the intranet which explored exactly this question. It's hard to say what exactly motivates people - different for each employee, probably.

In taking the survey, however, I picked money over pretty much every other benefit, every time.

Check out Netflix's employment opportunities web page - they have a good slide show of their HR philosophy. For salaried employees, they recognize money as the main motivation for people.
posted by boghead at 5:05 PM on June 6, 2010

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