How to create work that gets employees energized

The drivers, factors, and contexts that boost work motivation.

Key Points:

  1. Stand out elements for work motivation are goal setting, feedback, and feeling supported by your manager.
  2. Human motivation is not fixed; it can change through mindsets, circumstances, and outcomes.
  3. Tasks that involve creativity, autonomy, teamwork, and well-being are strong drivers of intrinsic motivation, the best form of human motivation that research has discovered so far. 

This Evidence-Based Summary has been made available in an audio-based format. Click play to give it a try!

Motivation drives our actions, so it’s no surprise that effective leaders pay attention to this force. Leaders and HR professionals try to prevent burnout, turnover, failures of leadership, and lost productivity while inspiring their people to produce high quality work.

What is motivation?

Motivation is defined as the energy that determines the direction of a person’s behavior. It drives a person’s level of effort and a person’s level of directed persistence in carrying out specific tasks and achieving goals

The research on motivation at work tends to focus on three things: states of mind, mechanisms of motivation, and outcomes. 

  • States of mind: are internal mindsets that influence people’s behaviour. 
  • Mechanisms of motivation: are conditions that facilitate and promote motivational outcomes. 
  • Outcomes: are the results of your motivation and may have something of a cyclical nature feeding back into your continued motivational behaviour.

Motivation can also be impacted by both internal (intrinsic) passion and external (extrinsic) forces like bonuses or recognition.

We’ve written about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation before in other articles. Feel free to read more here, here, and here!

The Scientific Review

The research supports the strongest theories about motivation, that provide the most accurate and up-to-date models describing what gets people going at work and included the highest quality of research over the past 20 years (ranging from 2000 to 2020).

The Major Theories of Motivation at Work and What They Recommend

Social Exchange Theory

Social Exchange Theory recommends that you treat people well and ensure an organizational culture that promotes the same throughout the entire organization. Doing so will promote reciprocity amongst your people, to the organization, and to their work generally.

Social Identity Theory

Social Identity Theory recommends that you promote strong internal cultural identity that your people adopt or to rely on the existing shared identities that are already available. If people identify strongly with their team, they will be less likely to want to fail them.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory suggests that managers ensure people have their three psychological needs met (i.e., Autonomy, Belonging, and Competence) by being communicative, supportive, by providing effective feedback, and by ensuring a culture of psychological safety. This frees people to take responsibly, take initiative, and to carry out their job to their fullest ability. For these reasons, evidence indicated that job characteristics that impact these three needs can contribute to lower turnover and improve motivation.

For more information on the importance of job characteristics on people and organizational performance, feel free to read this article here!

Self-Regulation Theory

Whenever organisations disclose the required behaviour that is linked with company values, self-regulation will contribute to individual purpose; and feeling supported by your manager will guide people to replicate the behaviour and work towards company goals. Managers that provide consistent check-ins to monitor work progress as well as recognition of work effort towards goals motivate employees in achieving their objectives.

Other Theories

Despite being popular and well known among business professionals in the field, Maslow’s hierarchy need theory, and Herzberg’s motivation hygiene theory, have not delivered sufficient scientific evidence supporting that they hold much water.

Takeaways for you and your practice

When designing employee motivation actions consider your employee audience first and foremost and what is important to them.

Psychological safety and meaningful work – organization where employees feel safe will respond positively to express themselves and receive feedback. Feeling belonging and being accepted will increase their understand in job purpose, meaning and impact. Get to learn the unique motivation and purpose of colleagues and leaders and build an environment that employees can be themselves.

Read more about psychological safety and job design!

Goal setting and supervisory support – delivering feedback and monitoring of progress towards goals motivate employees. In addition, managers that helps employees to recognize their efforts motivated employees towards their goals.

Read more about goal setting here!

Monetary rewards – we’ve learned that monetary rewards by itself is a limited contributor to employee motivation. Intrinsic motivation is generally a better form of motivation than extrinsic motivation.

For more information on monetary rewards, feel free to read this article here!

High performers – their motivation is invested on the feedback and recognition received how they are performing against their peers and how they can reach same high level of performance.

Trustworthiness score:

The trustworthiness of the study is of a high standard and quality (90%). This means there is a 10% chance that alternative explanations for the effect found are possible.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Wietrak, E., Rousseau, D. and Barends, E. (2021) Work motivation: an evidence review. Scientific summary. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. You can read it here!

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