What Motivates an Employee?

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Published: 28th November 2016
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Mr. Arsenault is a Senior Client Relationship Management Professional with more than 20 years of experience serving the operations, transportation, technology and financial service industries.

Management theories and trends run within a cycle of what motivates an employee. Today the prevailing management motivation theory is "employee engagement." What is employee engagement and how does it positively impact an employee's motivation? Companies have different definitions and a ways to measure employee engagement. It would be more interesting to hear how an employee sees engagement motivating them.

Management spends a great deal of time and energy focused on motivating employees. Companies spend significant amounts of money to train managers and hire outside firms to measure employee motivation. We make it part of a manager's expected results to have a highly motivated team. Companies constantly attempt to apply one strategy for improving an employee's motivation, thinking it will fit all employees. What motivates someone is as individual as the individual.

We have all heard the phrase, "Money is the root of all evil." Many employees start each day believing that money is their primary motivator for working. We must accept that money is a motivator, satisfying many of our primary needs such as providing for our families. Many get a great deal of satisfaction in purchasing items, vacations or homes for their families. There is a great deal of pride in providing for one's family. Compensation is not equal across the board and many feel their compensation does not equal their efforts. How can money be a motivator if a majority of employees feel that it's distributed unfairly? Let's call compensation a "base motivator;" it's something everyone requires to step into work each day.

Creating advancement opportunities or having the chance for career growth is often pointed to as a motivator for employees. This has its limitations, simply because you cannot promote everyone and offer everyone the same opportunities. Similar to compensation, many employees see promotion and career growth opportunities as less than fair. How do you motivate those who say they are happy in their positions and want nothing more?

A favorite motivation technique is making the employees happy and excited about coming to work each day. This task is similar to resolving the US National Debt, with very little chance of accomplishing this successfully. What makes me happy is being with my family or playing golf, neither of which my employer can provide Monday through Friday. Creating excitement at work is often linked to being part of a company's strategic effort or a special project. These types of projects often mean long hours, additional stress and feeling unfilled when the work is completed. This doesn't sound exciting or motivating to me.

The answer for motivating employees or teams is simple but difficult to accept, since it cannot be measured. Can a leader create an environment in which a team and its members feel comfortable with their roles and feel they are trusted each day to do the right thing? Treating employees as intelligent professionals is a good starting point. Employees understand and appreciate compensation, and promotions cannot be equal among all team members. If you trust people, they will find their place and area of responsibility within the team that makes them excited about their work. Telling people they are on a strategic project can even have negative impacts. Not every employee can be on a critical or strategic project; so is their work less important?

Leaders often "over manage" teams or employees in an effort to motivate them. It would be better for leaders to establish the boundaries and goals under which a team, project or employees should operate. Leaders could also allow and trust the individual employees and teams to create a working environment which will encourage, reward and recognize others. I further suggest that leaders not worry about effort or hours worked, and instead allow individuals to be comfortable contributing with no aspirations of moving up the ladder. Most of all, allow them to be themselves. Think of it as a football coach leading a team. The football coach picks the players, sets goals for the team, and then they play within the boundaries of the playing field. The coach or leader should be the team's number one fan, advisor and blocker if there are obstacles to the team's success. Allow the team to develop its own personality and reasons for being enthusiastic about their work. This enthusiasm can come from many different areas; technology, the specific project, people on the team or clients.

Employee surveys, attrition rate or counting the smiling faces each day at work can be methods to measure motivation (or using the new term, "engagement.") Why do we need to measure engagement or motivation? If we have an engaged team, do we have a successful team or company? Some leaders point directly to an improved engagement score as driving the company's success. But many of them enjoyed success with reduced costs and improved revenues.

We spend too much time worrying about engagement and motivation. Individuals, if given the opportunity, will find what motivates them daily to exceed expectations. If we remember as leaders that everyone wants to perform well and contribute to the success of a project, we will create the environment which offers them every opportunity to do so.

Copyright 2014, Joseph E. Arsenault

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