Motivating Beyond Money

I’ve often had the opportunity to meet with individuals who are out of work and networking for their next opportunity. It’s usually not long into our conversation that we’ve covered the basics and they reveal something deeper. They begin to talk with more passion about work and the significance it plays in their life beyond the money. Certainly, everyone needs income to meet their obligations, but it’s clear through my conversations that there’s much more to the job than money. Work has enormous intrinsic value and leaders who recognize that can strategically leverage this to impact the culture of their organization and thereby its performance.

Conventional wisdom makes the assumption that time spent outside of work gives us pleasure and that we work only out of necessity to earn money, which we use in order to achieve the happiness we seek outside of work. To the contrary, studies have shown that the happiest people are not those who don’t have to work, but rather those who enjoy satisfying work. The unhappy among us tend to be those with little sense of contribution to something larger than themselves or those who have nothing to look forward to on Monday morning.

Victor Frankl, an Austrian trained psychiatrist and Nazi concentration-camp survivor, wrote in his 1946 memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning of the role work played in determining who would or wouldn’t survive the concentration camp experience. He maintained that a search for purpose motivates our entire life and has a profound impact on our mental health and even our will to live.

As Frankl illustrated, workers need to labor for something meaningful. Belief in the value of their job is foundational to job satisfaction. Extrinsic rewards must also not crowd out the intrinsic reward of the work itself; that is, pay and benefits must not replace the satisfaction out of a job well done.

Alfie Kohn in his 1993 book, Punished By Rewards, shows that while manipulating people with incentives seems to work in the short run, it is a strategy that ultimately fails and even does lasting harm. Many financial rewards produce short-term boosts of performance and behavioral change which can have unintended conditioning consequences. Motivation strategies that favor pay and benefits, the “extrinsic rewards” for working, can also have a negative effect on job satisfaction by devaluing the “intrinsic rewards” that people care so much about. The reason for this is that people stop seeing a task for its intrinsic value and instead see it as a Pavlovian reward for the task performed.

Companies throughout Wisconsin have had to cut back on their financial compensation and incentive programs in response to tough economic conditions. This has created a great opportunity for leadership to reevaluate their financial and non-financial incentive programs to determine the best combination to lead their company into the future. But not everyone has taken advantage of the opportunity. For some, the old notion that money is what motivates is still a strong influence. For others, developing and implementing systems based on intrinsic job satisfaction requires more time and commitment from senior leaders than they’re willing or able to commit. It’s a case of the cure being worse than the disease.

There are however several simple things companies can do to have a positive impact on intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction. They involve matching the employee to the job, providing leadership attention, and creating opportunities for employees to engage in a way that allows them to have an impact on their environment and the way their work is performed. These simple tasks can help make employees feel that their companies value them and take their well-being seriously.

1. For an employee to feel satisfaction in their work they have to be challenged but the challenge of the work must be matched with her ability. A job with little challenge generates minimal energy or meaningful satisfaction. On the other hand, one that’s seen as beyond their ability to master will result in avoidant behavior and poor results. The consequence to both these situations is low job satisfaction and little intrinsic value in the work itself. The right balance of challenging opportunity and individual efficacy will depend on the individual.

2. One-on-one meetings or other regular conversations focused on the growth and wellbeing of employees can be highly motivational. It says to the employee, “I care about you and am invested in your success.” This makes people feel valued. While large-scale events such as department or company meetings are an important part of a organization’s communication system, they are much less effective and should never be substituted for dedicated one-on-one conversation.

3. A significant contributor to motivation and job satisfaction is a sense of control or influence over the work itself. A chance to lead or be a part of projects is a particularly powerful way of engaging employees in their work. These opportunities also develop leadership skills, which in the long-run, can have positive benefits for the company as well. It makes people feel like they’re part of the solution and part of the company’s future.

Many companies facing limit of $5000 cash and a high employee turnover have come to accept “leaving for a better opportunity” as a statement reflecting on pay and benefits. Indeed, this can have something to do with it, but people who are not satisfied with their jobs, who lack a sense of purpose, are much more likely to leave even when pay and benefits are satisfactory. Companies who recognize this and intentionality seek ways to build purpose and meaning into their culture will reap the benefit of a more engaged and motivated workforce.

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