What Really Influences Employee Motivation
The work of many researchers has found that the first three motives tend to increase performance, while the latter three hurt it. We found that the companies most famous for their cultures — from Southwest Airlines to Trader Joe’s — maximize the good motives, while minimizing the bad ones.
- Play is when you are motivated by the work itself. You work because you enjoy it. A teacher at play enjoys the core activities of teaching — creating lesson plans, grading tests, or problem solving how to break through to each student. Play is our learning instinct, and it’s tied to curiosity, experimentation, and exploring challenging problems.
- Purpose is when the direct outcome of the work fits your identity. You work because you value the work’s impact. For example, a teacher driven by purpose values or identifies with the goal of educating and empowering children.
- Potential is when the outcome of the work benefits your identity. In other words, the work enhances your potential. For example, a teacher with potential may be doing his job because he eventually wants to become a principal.
Since these three motives are directly connected to the work itself in some way, you can think of them as direct motives. They will improve performance to different degrees. Indirect motives, however, tend to reduce it.
- Emotional pressure is when you work because some external force threatens your identity. If you’ve ever used guilt to compel a loved one to do something, you’ve inflicted emotional pressure. Fear, peer pressure, and shame are all forms of emotional pressure. When you do something to avoid disappointing yourself or others, you’re acting on emotional pressure. This motive is completely separate from the work itself.
- Economic pressure is when an external force makes you work. You work to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. Now the motive is not only separate from the work itself, it is also separate from your identity.
- Finally, inertia is when the motive is so far removed from the work and your identity that you can’t identify why you’re working. When you ask someone why they are doing their work, and they say, “I don’t know; I’m doing it because I did it yesterday and the day before,” that signals inertia. It is still a motive because you’re still actually doing the activity, you just can’t explain why.
These indirect motives tend to reduce performance because you’re no longer thinking about the work—you’re thinking about the disappointment, or the reward, or why you’re bothering to do it at all. You’re distracted, and you might not even care about the work itself or the quality of the outcome.
We found that a high-performing culture maximizes the play, purpose, and potential felt by its people, and minimizes the emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. This is known as creating total motivation (ToMo).