Legal Blog

What Motivates Employees?


Compensation vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Money is not the most significant motivating factor for most employees. It goes without saying that every employee wants fair pay, but according to Daniel Pink’s bestselling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, “the more prominent salary and benefit perks are in someone’s work life, the more they can inhibit creativity and unravel performance.” Adding a monetary incentive doesn’t necessarily increase the desired behavior. In some cases, it can even act as a demotivating force. Consider what Pink calls the “Tom Sawyer effect”. You may recall a scene from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in which Tom is forced to whitewash a fence after getting his clothes dirty. Though he initially dreads the assignment, Tom is able to trick several of his friends into doing the work—and even paying him for the privilege—by persuading them how much fun it is. To Tom’s lackeys, the task no longer seemed like work; it was play. Their reward was the job itself. Had they expected compensation, on the other hand, their priorities would have shifted. Imagine the negative competition that would have arisen or the resentment the boys might feel toward Tom as he sat back and watched them do his labor. Most modern workplaces, of course, face challenges much more complex than painting a fence—and we do have to pay our employees—but managers and HR professionals can learn from Twain’s century-old insight: Intrinsic value trumps the carrot and stick.

What Fosters Intrinsic Value?

Many of the factors that contribute to job satisfaction are everyday practices such as paid time off and medical benefits. Others are less tangible, as Geoffrey James explores in his article “10 Things Employees Want More Than a Raise”: fair treatment, respect, a voice, a personal life, less stress, and job security—to name a few. Laid out this way, employee satisfaction may look like a list of impossible-to-meet demands. How can you reliably measure subjective qualities like fairness and creative freedom? The answer lies in workplace policies. A healthy workplace should give employees regular opportunities to use their skills and abilities, and encourage autonomous decision-making within a framework of communication between staff and senior management. Relationships are key, especially those between an employee and her immediate supervisor. Then there’s the question of purpose. Why should employees want to get out of bed in the morning to come to work? Take TOMS Shoes, the California retail company is known for its “One for One” movement. TOMS started when founder Blake Mycoskie was traveling in Argentina and observed children suffering because they did not have shoes. Instead of forming a nonprofit and relying on donations, Mycoskie decided to establish a for-profit company dedicated to helping the children and those like them around the world. So, for every one of its products a customer purchases, TOMS donates the equivalent to a person in need. TOMS provides an example of what workplaces can offer employees when leadership embraces objectives other than profit. Short of changing its business model, your company can motivate employees through socially and environmentally responsible procedures like those followed by benefit corporations such as TOMS. Expect this new breed of responsible companies to grow even more popular as more business people seek additional forms of fulfillment beyond financial success. For now, there are several simple practices any company can implement to take steps toward greater employee retention and satisfaction.



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