How Do We Define Motivation in the Modern Business Environment?

The simplest definition of operational motivation is defined as the “inner force that drives individuals to accomplish personal and organisational goals”.

The follow-up question is therefore:  What creates that inner force?  Followed by: Why does an organisation need motivated employees?

Addressing the latter question first, studies started in the 20th century began to understand that employees were more than just another resource in the production of goods and services. A study by Dickson (1973) was the first to establish that employees are not motivated by solely by money and that employee behaviour is linked to their attitudes.

Moving onto why organisations need motivated employees?  Again, in the simplest of terms: Survival.  Motivated employees are the most productive employees. If leaders and managers can understand what motivates employees to perform to a high standard of excellence in their role, their business has a better chance of succeeding in challenging and changing times.

A study undertaken by the British Psychological Society in 2018, and referenced in People Management Magazine, is the most recent demonstration of how management skills influence productivity.  The study, reviewing 117,000 leaders and managers across 32 countries concluded that “it is worth investing in the selection and development of leaders in order to improve organisational and national productivity”.

But – back to that “inner force” – what creates it and is the answer something that can be applied as a single set of principles?

The Three Theories of Motivation

The most well-known theory of motivation is, of course, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.   Developed in 1943, this theory states that there is a strict ranking of what employees need in order to the reach the pinnacle of “self-actualisation”.

As can be seen from the diagram on the left, this strict accession implies that each level must be achieved before another can be reached; and that achieving one’s potential is the highest level of success. However, this has not always been borne out by subsequent studies.

Following Maslow, Herzberg (1959) defined two factors that affected people’s attitudes about work. These being motivators and hygiene factors. Herzberg went so far as to suggest that hygiene’s (fair pay and job security, policies and procedures, leadership and internal relationships) led to job dissatisfaction when not present, whereas satisfaction was only achieved through achievement and recognition.

The difference between factors that motivate and factors that do not are that the motivating factors are an intrinsic element of the job, but the demotivating factors are extrinsic, surrounding the individual but not playing any part in the role.

Finally, Vroom (1964) proposed the Expectancy theory defined as: “Expectancy theory proposes an individual will behave or act in a certain way because they are motivated to select a specific behaviour over others due to what they expect the result of that selected behaviour will be. In essence, the motivation of the behaviour selection is determined by the desirability of the outcome.”

A recent study conducted in 2018 contradicted this, however, revealing that currently the most important motivating factor is salary followed by reward and that the issues associated with “self-actualisation” were further down the list.

This doesn’t seem unreasonable in the current financial climate of austerity and uncertainly.

Further research at a deeper level has concluded that whilst money does not buy motivation, neither does it demotivate.

motivated team

What Does This Tell Us in 2019 and Moving Forward?

Whilst the basic premise of the three theories are correct, no theory is ever perfect, and the overlying context of the job market is one crucial factor in determining what will motivate employees at any given time.

What they did not and could not allow for is the extent to which the concept of flexibility is now part of the modern workforce culture.

A recent report on salary has said that the majority of organisations are looking to increase their salary offer by over 2% this year (within the private sector). For any company that uses a scale of reward this could be as high as a 4% increase, outstripping inflation for the first time in many years.

The hygiene factors, on the other hand, have remained consistent, so ensuring that these most basic of needs are understood will and should always be the initial consideration for new employees.

What are the Hygiene Factors?

Whilst Maslow equates Hygiene factors to the most basic of human needs – food, drink and safe shelter as well as being in a work environment tools to do the job (workspace, IT, etc), Herzberg’s work took a more complex view and concluded that hygiene factors are those which can demotivate employees if they aren’t present at all times.  These won’t encourage employees to work harder but they will cause them to become unmotivated if they are either not present or not perceived as fair.  They include:

  • Salary, i.e. compensation and benefits.
  • Workplace policies; such as rules, procedures and processes.
  • Working conditions; including physical and psychological workplace safety.
  • Interpersonal relationships with co-workers, team members, peers and colleagues.
  • Supervision; referring to the manager-employee relationship or the relationship between leadership and staff.

All of the above hygiene factors are necessary to keep the organisation moving forward, but if they are improperly applied, they can lead to levels of dissatisfaction that can impact the bottom line of a business and could lead to its subsequent failure.

It is important to note that how these hygiene factors are dealt with in an organisation should depend on and be aligned with its culture.

Company Culture and Motivation

Before examining culture and its role in motivation; an organisation’s values from which the culture is derived must identified. It’s vitally important to recognise what the values are, as they form the essence of why the organisation exists.  They will define the norms and behaviours that a drive teams’ approach to doing business.  These principles should be highly visible and demonstrated through constant practice.

So, moving on to culture, company culture is the personality of a company. It expresses the environment in which people work and possesses a number of elements, including the organisation’s mission, values and ethics.

For example, is the organisation team orientated with employee participation at all levels, or is it a more traditional and formal? Or perhaps it’s actually a casual workplace without many rules and regulations.

Company culture is important because people will enjoy their work more when they fit in with the company culture.  When they are working with like-minded people their inter work-relationships will be more positive, resulting in higher productivity.

When an employee works for an organisation and they don’t align with the company culture, they are far less likely to be engaged in their work. For example, people who like privacy and space will not work well in open plan workspace. Whereas those who value the opportunity to engage and communicate at all levels will not thrive in a traditional hierarchical environment.

For those who like a laid back and fun environment the company culture will be a significant factor in deciding whether to join an organisation or not.

If advancement and promotion are important, a traditional style promotion board and formal processes are going to be demotivating factors.

It’s crucial for an organisation to identify and understand its own culture and keep this understanding at the forefront of recruitment decisions because people who align with the company culture have a higher chance of being content and productive than those who fit poorly. Such individuals are likely to stay with the organisation, thus lowering turnover.

work motivation ladders

How Integrating Culture with Hygiene Factors Can Prevent Business Loss

Wages and Benefits

Employees, first and foremost, want fair compensation and benefits packages.  In general terms, low wages and a non-competitive compensation package can lead to low morale, and although people are unlikely to resign as a direct result of low pay, the low morale can result in them searching for a new job. The damage to an organisation’s reputation for being a poor payer will lead to difficulties in attracting good candidates.

Having a high turnover of staff comes with substantial associated costs. An offer should be in line with the organisation’s values and match how it treats its staff.  An example is that an organisation that promises fast track and career advancement for the best candidates and staff with associated benefits will need to keep abreast of the movement of the market and make sure that what was promised is actually delivered.

Policies and Procedures

These should be transparent and unequivocal, clearly communicated to all staff members and should reflect the values of the organisation. They should be non-discriminatory and applicable to all equally. Avoid policies and procedures that seem to favour the organisation’s hierarchy and leadership but offer little to the employees as these will be viewed as unfair and again will lead to mistrust, low morale and poor productivity.

Policies and procedures that reflect the values of the Company and support its culture will advance trust and confidence. For example, if the organisational culture is one that promotes fairness and equality it will take care to ensure that all of its policies and procedures are correspond with equal opportunities, equality and diversity.

Working Environment

Working conditions must be safe and comfortable.   They also have to be hygienic in the literal sense.  This is a straightforward condition to satisfy. Anyone who has worked in an environment that is poorly lit, too hot or too cold, not sufficiently cleaned, overcrowded or too noisy will know the debilitating effect that any of these factors can have on employees, ultimately leading to poor performance.

A study undertaken in 2011 confirmed that working environment impacts on mood and on mental health.  This study found that people working in older buildings, that were darker with lower ceilings and more noise were more stressed than people in a modern environment with natural light and open layouts.  The inclusion of a kitchen, of any size, allowing a space to make hot drinks and socialise at meal and break times, impacts positively on good morale.  Creating a space where staff feel comfortable lessens the possibility of high absence levels.


All relationships are necessary elements of the workplace – peer, supervisory, management and leadership.  It’s an accepted fact that many recruits join an organisation as an employee and leave as a Manager. In environments where relationships are built ineffectively or are socially unacceptable it is inevitable that employees will look for other opportunities.

In terms of matching employee relationships to culture, there will be many businesses where relationships are based on the need to quickly and effectively obtain results. In others, where there is a laid-back flat structure, employees take responsibility and have opportunities to step up.

It’s crucial that organisations match their behaviour to their stated values in order to avoid the dissatisfaction that comes from misaligning the hygiene factors.

Motivational Factors

The top five motivating factors, according to surveys conducted over the past fifty years, that are an intrinsic part of the job are:

  • Interesting work
  • Appreciation or recognition for a job well done
  • Career advancement opportunities
  • Personal growth
  • Responsibility

It can be seen immediately that these are the higher values, providing the psychological and self-fulfilment needs that bring people to work each day and motivate them to put in their best effort.

games at work to motivate

How Can Organisations Best Motivate Staff?

Knowing people and what makes them tick is the key to understanding how motivational factors will work best for which people.  This is a fundamental role of management. Some people are extroverts, some are introverts, some require close supervision and support, others thrive on independence. Age and expectations will differentiate what is important at any point of an individual’s career.

What is most important to understand is that trying to apply the same set of factors to an entire staff base will not work. One size cannot and will not fit all.

For a Manager to get the best from their team members, that Manager must make the time to get to know the team, understand what motivates them, and figure out how to use this knowledge to get the utmost from each person.

“Interesting work” has come close to, if not being at the top of, all of the surveys and investigations carried out focusing on motivation.  What this means will vary from person to person. What motivates one person may bore another. A recent survey carried out by the CIPD suggested that a significant number of people in the UK are in the wrong job.

As many people know, there is nothing more demotivating than being stuck in a job that seems to be going nowhere, giving no satisfaction and not being able to work out why this is the case. It isn’t clear if this is because of poor hiring, or lack of attention to what people want in terms of personal growth. But it’s important to give every individual the chance to discuss their personal aspirations and motivations.

At the most basic level, a job description needs to accurately describe the most important aspects of the role and how these contribute to both individual and organisational success. How can a person know if they are successful in their role if they don’t know what success means at every level and how they are contributing towards it?

Having a good review process is important.  Everyone wants to see that they are being treated fairly and equally, so having a process that allows time for each person will give that person the basic satisfaction of knowing that there are no favourites and that everyone is treated the same.

Using this process to set regular goals, to understand what is needed to ensure that the person can fulfil the goals, and to make time for a regular check to see that the person is on track will show the organisation’s willingness to invest in staff.

The next step on from this is having a process that allows the possibility of advancement.  As part of the review process, every person should be able to identify both their long-term and short-term goals, as well as where they would ultimately like to advance to.  This knowledge can translate into a delineated career path.  Comparing the employee’s current skill set with the skills that will be needed for the career goal defines the career path.

For staff who are highly motivated to advance their career, stretch goals can be motivating, taking them out of their comfort zone and pushing them beyond their own perceived limitations.  Having clear goals and something new and different to aim at can be both fun and exciting.

Staff who thrive on such challenges will often encourage an atmosphere around them that motivates others to push themselves a little more.  However, there may well be failures when people are pushed beyond their current capacity.  How the Manager reacts in this situation can save a failure from being morale zapping for both the person and the organisation.  Encouraging learning from failure instead of criticising and punishing will allow the person to recover their confidence and retain their motivation to keep on their defined career path.

employees happy at work

People thrive on recognition and congratulations. Recognition of work well done tells people that they and their work are valued. Yet, according to an article by Cutting Edge: “Surveys conducted by Sirota Consulting revealed that only 51% of workers were satisfied with the recognition they received after a job well done. This figure is as conclusive as you could get – it resulted from interviewing 2.5 million employees in 237 private, public and not-for-profit organizations in 89 countries around the world over 10 years.”

This is further reinforced by a Cicero study which found that employees who self-reported what motivated them to do great work reported thus:

Being recognised is one of the psychological factors on the path to Maslow’s “self-actualisation”, but Maslow refers to a state of consistency, in which this is the cultural norm. This fits with Vroom’s Expectancy theory, whereby staff will behave in a way that predicates a certain outcome. Therefore, if recognition and congratulations are likely to be the outcome, selected behaviours will be sufficiently positive to ensure that this outcome is achieved.

There are many ways in which recognition can aid motivation, both formally and informally.

A culture in which a manager congratulates staff on a successful outcome of any work will encourage that individual and those who observe it to continue to aim for this outcome. However, there are two important tenets:

  • It must be consistent i.e. it should be second nature for the manager and applicable to all of that manager’s staff.
  • It must be appropriate. The extent of the praise will be proportionate to the size of the achievement. Effusiveness over something small and insignificant will seem patronising and insincere, lacking in real respect for the achievement, which also suggests that the manager is paying lip service to the culture.

It’s true that many managers feel awkward about praising staff and showing gratitude. In the UK it is not a natural cultural behaviour. Accordingly, it is important the organisation works with managers, especially those new to the responsibility, to help them understand the reasons behind this and so that they feel comfortable with complimenting such behaviour.

Some managers and their organisations believe that recognition is unnecessary, as people are paid to do their job and they shouldn’t be thanked for it. But given the above evidence, and the proven link between recognition and productivity, the question should not be “why should I?” but “why wouldn’t I?”.

It’s worth remembering that the cost of disengagement is high:

  • Hiring – time taken for advertising, screening, interviewing, onboarding, away from the main job role.
  • Lost productivity as the new employee gets up to speed. (This has been reported to take up to 8 months, depending on the nature and complexity of the role and the upskilling and learning required)
  • Low engagement from existing staff as they see a colleague depart and subsequent productivity loss
  • Training cost for an employee who lacks the necessary skills to carry out their role.

An important aspect of aligning the culture with positive motivation is the way in which communication takes place.

Taking time to explain the reasons for why a Leader or Manager asks for certain commitments is likely to gain a higher buy-in from employees.  If people don’t know why they are performing a task, or what the intended final outcome is, how can they feel sufficiently motivated to put in the required effort?

Ingrid Catlin of WordStride sums this up as: “The Number One challenge we see facing managers when they’re trying to motivate their employees is the fact that the managers have not adequately educated their employees on why they’re doing what they’re doing, only what needs to be done.  To be motivated, an employee needs to realise the impact of his/her day-to-day work and fully understand how it affects the business as a whole.”

Finally, the role of the Leader. His/her role is to clearly communicate the vision, in a way that inspires all throughout the organisation. The Leader owns the roadmap and is the ultimate champion of the vision the attached goals. His/her purpose to ensure that every member of staff is able to understand where they fit into the achievement of success.

The Leader ultimately holds total responsibility for ensuring that everyone in the organisation can come to work each day feeling motivated and ready to give their best. He/she must have a thorough understanding of motivation so that they are prepared to challenge behaviour that does not represent the vision, values and goals of the organisation.  When the Leader is adequately motivated, the organisation will follow.  The Manager lights a fire under their people. The Leader lights the fire within their people.