Motivation is the force that drives behavior – it is the reason behind our actions. In the workplace, looking at motivation helps us understand why we work, and is intimately related to engagement. With only 33% of employees engaged in their jobs, and 51% actively looking for new ones, the imperative to examine and optimize employee motivation becomes increasingly evident.
We hear a lot about motivation in the workplace, but we often misunderstand what it truly means. Probably the most common misconception around motivation at work is the notion that we need more motivation. Really, we need the right kinds of motivation.
Learn more about motivational quality in the video below:
Motivational quality (MQ) is a crucial indicator of workplace happiness – so how do we go about improving and nurturing it? To unpack the foundation of motivational quality, we look to Self-Determination Theory – the world's leading model for personal growth and fulfillment. Founded by Drs. Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, 40 years of behavioral research has fed this leading theory of human motivation. The fundamental tenet of this theory is that we all have the potential and desire to prosper in our lives. To do this, i.e. to achieve a high MQ, we must nourish our three basic psychological needs – needs that every human being has.
Over 40 years of research, the three "core needs" that have emerged as the most universal and influential for personal fulfillment, well-being and success are: Autonomy, Relatedness and Mastery. Just as physical needs for food and water are necessary for physical growth, the fulfillment of the core psychological needs is essential. Simply put, experiencing these core needs enables people to flourish – realizing increased engagement, better performance, greater focus, deeper learning and overall satisfaction in and out of the workplace. In contrast, failing to have one's core needs satisfied leads to low motivational quality and ill-being.
Continue reading to learn more about the three core pillars of a person’s motivational quality.
When we have high support, it means that our direct managers are successfully making space for our core needs and are helping us actualize them. Fulfillment, on the other hand, speaks to whether our needs are ultimately getting met (because there are many factors outside of direct report relationship that can impact how are needs are satisfied). It’s important to leverage both of these lenses when looking at your motivational quality, as it points us more directly to where we can take action to maximize our engagement.
For practical applications demonstrating support for the core needs of motivation, see:
We’ve established that the three core needs Autonomy, Relatedness and Mastery are the foundational pillars of a healthy motivational quality (MQ). Unpacking MQ further, SDT reveals that there are also three supporting factors that relate specifically to healthy MQ in the workplace.
These are compensation (fairness and satisfaction), company pride and personal resources (vitality and mindfulness).
Compensation fairness refers to whether we feel that pay is directly related to how good our work has been.
Compensation satisfaction is about whether we feel we are compensated enough, and like we are taken care of through our benefits package. There is an important consideration regarding compensation in the context of MQ: SDT has taught us that the days of rewarding good behavior with monetary rewards are over. Money is extrinsic – relying on compensation to drive employee performance would ultimately undermine motivational quality. Rather, compensation is an important component of employee motivation because of what it signals to the employee. When pay is fair and satisfactory, it signifies a work environment that supports autonomy, mastery and relatedness.
This supporting factor refers to whether we genuinely appreciate our company’s values, and trust that our company works to positively impact its people. A study conducted by Jostle in 2015 revealed that there is a 76% correlation between pride in your company and employee engagement. Company pride also affects other key business outcomes – a study from Gallup in 2017 links it directly to absenteeism and quality of work.
The last supporting factor of motivational quality in the workplace is the idea of personal resources – specifically, mindfulness and vitality. While mindfulness and vitality can be affected by external stimuli, they are not attached to anything external – they exclusively come from within ourselves.
Mindfulness has to do with our ability to pay full attention to tasks, stay aware of what’s going on in the present moment, and avoid distraction. Experimental studies have demonstrated that mindfulness in the work place boosts our sense of well-being and improves our ability to achieve work goals.
Vitality refers to our energy level; specifically, our “useful energy.” Academic research has also revealed that when our work environment supports the three basic needs, we are better equipped with this useful energy to complete our work tasks.
Each of these factors support overall motivational quality (MQ). As we’ve learned, motivational quality is the type of motivation that is driving us to act, and it can range from low to high, depending on the presence of fair and satisfactory compensation, company pride and personal resources.
SDT has identified a set of components that can either increase or decrease motivational quality
The presence of these contributors – interest and personal value – fosters a high motivational quality. In other words, when someone has interest in and derives personal value from a particular activity, we know that they are intrinsically motivated.
When detractors are present, they degrade motivational quality. They exist on a spectrum – amotivation is the lowest quality form of motivation, which is when there is no interest or sense of value associated with an activity.
Moving along the spectrum, there is external pressure: when there is some external reward or punishment motivating us to act.
Next, there is internal pressure, which is when we are motivated to act by pressure we put on ourselves – like doing something solely to feel good about ourselves or to manage our image. While internal pressure is higher quality than amotivation, none of these detractors provide a sustainable way to drive behavior or actualize positive work outcomes.
When we look at these subcomponents as one whole picture we see that healthy workplace motivation is an integrated framework of hierarchical and interrelated parts. The foundational core needs are basic necessities that lean on experiences of company pride, compensation satisfaction & fairness, and mindfulness & vitality to feed motivational quality – the ultimate indicator of a positive work experience. This key indicator factors in personal interest & value, as well as different kinds of pressure to provide a comprehensive measure of engagement.
For the individual, an understanding of these concepts is invaluable in today’s landscape, where an organization’s employee engagement initiatives so rarely involve their individual employees in the solution – engagement is frequently treated as a top-down initiative. This framework guides us to an empirical and individual-friendly way to proactively maximize our own employee experience.
At the institutional level, this motivational framework offers a paradigm-shifting solution. Self-Determination theory revolutionizes how we think about employee motivation in the context of talent optimization. The “carrot-and-stick” tactic of using punishments and rewards to drive certain behaviors may not be as credible or effective an approach as it has previously been considered. Departing from this traditional method and moving towards a system that embraces the tenets of SDT will give way to a more engaged workforce and ultimately a higher impact on the bottom line.