Motivation is not an easy thing to master, but the reward for getting it right can be massive.
Much of the challenge comes from the varied and individualistic nature of motivation. Everyone is motivated by slightly (or dramatically) different things, and in different ways. Despite those variances, there's always a common thread you can follow to find success.
Motivation is personal, but you don't need to roll out an individualized motivation program for each person on your team. Understanding the major types of motivation and some of the things that drive them will help make any program more effective, and more universally applicable.
Incentives and motivation
There's a subtle, but important delineation to draw between motivation and incentive, and it's that point of distinction a lot of programs fail to make.
Incentive is something you can provide anyone with in an attempt to motivate them to take (or not take) an action. You might provide incentive for someone to do something, but if that incentive fails to provide the critical level of motivation to inspire action, it's simply a cost center.
Let's use an example:
You've got a huge deadline you need to meet, but there's not enough time in a standard business day to get it done. You declare, "free skydiving lessons for anyone willing to stay late and help me out with this."
That incentive might be extraordinarily attractive and motivating to some, and utterly unappealing to others. Among those who are motivated by it, that same incentive could provide different types of motivation.
One taker might be driven to accept because skydiving is a critical step in their personal growth, while another might find it to be a convenient way to save on their monthly skydiving bill. Others might be actively deterred from staying late to help out, because the thought of skydiving terrifies them.
That's why it's important to understand how different motivators work together, and how they sometimes don't — particularly in the context of your own unique team.
A motivational ecosystem
The two main categories of motivators are intrinsic and extrinsic — but don't mistake their categorization as a polarized relationship. Many extrinsic motivators are closely related to intrinsic motivators, and each can have a significant impact on the other in what could best be described as a motivational ecosystem.
Extrinsic motivation comes from outside an individual. It's something that a person can earn, but cannot produce themselves. These are the motivators you have the most power to directly influence through incentives.
Pay is probably the most common incentives organizations use to motivate employees, because it's one of the simplest. But it's not the only way, and it's not necessarily the most impactful.
Here's the biggest challenge with pay: it's a fungible and finite resource.
If you pay someone more to do something, the motivation you're providing only exists while you continue to pay them more. When the money runs out, so does the motivation.
Your paycheck and bonus dollars are identical to everyone else's paycheck and bonus dollars. When someone else is willing to pay more, their incentive provides more extrinsic motivation.
Perks are another way organizations can provide extrinsic motivation, and are oftentimes less costly than additional pay. A few examples might be team lunches every Wednesday, a kegerator in the lobby, nap pods, work-from-home days, a corner office, or a company car.
Have you ever noticed that almost nobody calls in sick on pizza day?
The key is providing perks that match your organizational culture, and that have a chance of providing additional intrinsic motivation. A good example might be something like subsidized educational materials or courses, which can also tap into the intrinsic motivational qualities of growth.
Titles are a low (or no) cost extrinsic motivator an organization can provide, especially when increased pay isn't an option. That extrinsic motivation the promise of a new, loftier title provides can also speak to the intrinsic motivators of growth and achievement.
Experiences are a great form of motivation, and can be unique to your organization. One Acre Fund (check out our interview with their own Allison Bream) provides a great example of this.
As part of their work, employees get to travel across the world, meet great people and help solve important problems. Those experiences, and the purpose behind them are part of what motivates current team members to stay, and new ones to join.
Recognition is a uniquely potent motivator. Being recognized by colleagues and peers for great work is an outstanding motivator. Although receiving recognition is an extrinsic motivator, it has a strong positive impact on intrinsic motivators like purpose, and self-esteem.
Providing a recognition-rich environment is one of the most impactful ways an organization can support both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
Responsibilities are another powerful extrinsic motivator that can have an impact on intrinsic motivation as well. Giving someone additional responsibilities can provide them with a sense of growth, of purpose, and an opportunity to embrace accountability.
Just as with all powerful tools, this one requires deft handling — there's a fine line between giving a willing and able recipient new responsibilities, and dumping responsibilities on someone who's already overwhelmed.
It's also critical to provide necessary autonomy and agency along with new responsibilities, so they can be carried out as effectively as possible.
Intrinsic motivators come from within an individual, and can't be given by another; however, they can be supported or inspired, and that's where your extrinsic motivation strategy can make a positive impact.
Here are a few examples of intrinsic motivators, and some ways to support them.
Growth is a strong intrinsic motivator. Everyone wants to see that they're at least one step further today than they were yesterday. Helping members of your team grow — putting frameworks in place to make that easy — and helping them see their growth can provide significant motivation.
Mastery is the impulse that pushed you to keep perfecting that chocolate chip cookie recipe, or that roundhouse kick. It's what kept pushing you forward when your karaoke rendition of "Sweet Caroline" was acceptable, but not jaw-dropping.
By providing opportunities, avenues, and support for skill mastery, you're not only benefiting from having a more skilled team, you're motivating them to stay with you while they hone their craft.
Accountability fits right on the center line between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If you "hold someone accountable" for a specific action or behavior, you're providing an extrinsic reinforcement to their motivation.
Conversely, when someone is inspired to embrace accountability, they're pushed along by their own steam — and it's at this point that something truly remarkable happens.
Purpose is one of the strongest intrinsic motivators a person can be propelled by, and while you can't give someone purpose, you can certainly help them see it.
There is purpose to be found in nearly every job, whether that job is in the service industry, a non-profit organization, or a dentist's office. By helping your team see the purpose in their work, you'll be stoking the internal fire that propels them to do their best work.
Finding the intersection
The key to motivating a large number of people is finding the intersection between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
When both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are supported effectively, they feed off of one another and work together to produce a result that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Motivation is a diverse and complicated subject, but it's not impossible to crack. To improve your success rate, keep in mind the difference between incentives and motivation, as well as the differences and similarities between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
If you're ready to take the next step toward building an extraordinary organization, check out our latest guide: