Psychology of Employee Motivation

The Science of Employee Motivation

By George Dickson on March 16, 2015

You can improve employee engagement and retention with science. Here's how:

In an attempt to discourage the brightest talent from moving on, organizational leadership regularly searches for progressive methods of engaging and retaining employees. This drive to improve employee retention and maximize productivity progressed over time to meet the changing demands of an ever-evolving workforce.

Organization development emerged in the ‘60s, when humanistic values led leadership to explore methods of improving employee motivation at work. Applying the studies of behavioral scientists like Maslow, Herzberg, and McGregor, workforce leaders worked to uncover employees’ deeper needs, theorizing how meeting those needs would keep them engaged and productive.

Today, workforce leaders continue to develop more innovative solutions, often in the form of buzzworthy perks. Just look at Google, and the companies who mimic their strategy with catered meals, unique workspaces, and other on-site conveniences.

Although some organizations mimic these strategies, many fail to look beyond their more superficial functions. Leaders who comprehend motivation on a deeper level better understand what makes engagement initiatives successful.

Here are a few employee motivation suggestions based on science that you can leverage in your business today:

Consider the multilateral nature of human needs:

Physiological needs like hunger take priority over more subtle needs. It’s no surprise that companies stock their break rooms with snacks and catered lunches. These things do meet employee needs on a basic level, according to Maslow, but that’s only the first layer.

In Maslow's Theory of Human Motivation, he explains that consummatory behavior serves as a channel for meeting deeper psychological needs, like comfort or belonging. Employers must not forget the needs beneath the surface because once a base need like hunger is satisfied, the need for belonging, esteem, and self-actualization will take precedence. Those needs are more complex and cannot be externally satisfied as easily.

They can, however, be cultivated by providing employees with the right environment to develop positive workplace relationships. To help meet deeper needs, focus on using perks like group meals, which allow time and a venue for employees to build rapport with one another. Providing more opportunities for peers to discuss, compliment, and validate one another’s work raises esteem and invites camaraderie.

Our deepest needs must be met more frequently.

As humans, we seek social cues to let us know we’re on the right track. We seek praise, but we also look for ways to improve and reach the furthest extent of our capabilities. This is our deepest need: self-actualization.

Maslow defines self-actualization as “the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for the individual to become actualized in what he is potentially.”

In the workplace, we see managers attempt to fulfill this need with rewards and recognition, typically only offered quarterly or annually, during performance reviews. The trouble with this gap in feedback is, employees have to wait to hear encouraging messages like, “You’re doing a great job! You’re on the right track! You truly shined in this project, we couldn’t have done it without you,” making them less impactful.

Instead, companies should leverage peer influence to help employees feel actualized. Since employees work directly with one another, they witness the small victories that can go overlooked by management. Give your team the opportunity to publicly recognize each other frequently and consistently.

People will not only accept, but seek responsibility and accountability.

Despite our desire for self-actualization, we aren’t all in it for ourselves. In fact, we crave responsibility.

Based on Maslow’s theory of human motivation, Douglas McGregor developed two theories: Theory X and Theory Y. Theory X was based on the lower-order needs, and assumed employees hated work, calling for a management style where employees are closely supervised with control systems in place. In this view, employees are just cogs in the wheel.

Theory Y, based on higher-order needs, assumes workers are ambitious, self-motivated and involves a participative management style. In this mindset, managers believe that given the right conditions, most employees want to do well at work -- and the satisfaction of doing well alone is enough motivation.

Though he suggested either style could be used to motivate employees, Theory Y gained better results when properly implemented. These findings prove giving employees more autonomy, and ridding organizational structures of top-down hierarchies, inspires motivation.

Empower your employees to make decisions and have more of a say in what goes on in the workplace. Letting them evaluate the contributions of other team members  a job traditionally left up to management  is a great place to start. Giving this responsibility to employees will inspire more team accountability because employees can see their actions directly evoking responses from their peers. This is how accountability advances from a standard someone must actively be held to, into a proudly-worn badge of honor.

Motivation theory offers a deeper understanding of why many companies engage employees using the initiatives they do. Considering the solutions presented, it’s evident that employee motivation can be achieved with little to no cost. Needs like belonging, esteem and self-actualization can all be satisfied with peer relationships, recognition, and the social praise needed to realize a job well done.

If it’s truly possible to improve important business metrics without large front-end financial costs, why aren’t more companies jumping on this?

Written by George Dickson

George Dickson

George manages content and community at Bonusly. He's dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition.