We know employee motivation is important – there’s no debate there. However, when it comes to motivation, many employers mistakenly rely upon short-term incentives, resulting in a momentary boost in performance, but rarely produce a lasting effect. Creating the kind of motivation that lasts and is sustainable requires a better understanding of where motivation comes from, and what it is.

‘Motivation is an internal process. Whether we define it as a drive or a need, motivation is a condition inside us that desires a change, either in the self or the environment,’ writes Beata Souders for PostitivePsychology.com. ‘When we tap into this well of energy, motivation endows the person with the drive and direction needed to engage with the environment in an adaptive, open-ended, and problem-solving sort of way.’

Our internal motivation plays a significant role in helping us to learn, create, set goals, and change behaviours. This is particularly important for keeping employees engaged in the workplace or making changes to an organisation.

Lack of motivation can lead to disengagement, resulting in lower productivity, the spread of dissent, absenteeism, and general unhappiness. In short, unmotivated employees can lead to disastrous consequences for any organisation.

But it can be challenging for employers to motivate employees successfully. One study showed that 80% of managers thought they could motivate their employees — but less than half of those employees agreed.

How to motivate employees 

A good frame of reference for truly motivating people is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The five basic requirements essential for human growth and self-actualisation can help guide motivational plans.

Like engagement, motivation isn’t something you can require of people and isn’t something you can regulate through an employee handbook. However, there are many things an employer can do to assure that workers have what they need to both feel motivated and to remain engaged.

  • Set clear goals and get out of the way. Goals can be excellent motivators. People like to put their talents to work. After all, that’s why they were hired. Managers should help set clear goals and deadlines, but then they must step aside and allow their teams to flourish and innovate with abandon.

One survey shows that 68% of employees who feel micromanaged stated it lowered their morale, and 55% said it hurt productivity.

People like to feel in control of what they are doing. Finding creative solutions to problems, achieving goals, meeting or beating deadlines all impact our sense of self-esteem — a basic need for self-actualisation.

  • Make work/life balance a true priority. Remove unnecessary stress over management of personal and work lives. Everyone has a personal life. Let’s not pretend it can be ignored 40 hours per week.

Many organisations will talk the talk, “we prioritise work/life balance.” Still, few ensure that managers respect employee time away from work or an employee’s need to occasionally take care of a personal errand or phone call during work hours.

Managers must be required to respect boundaries with employees and encourage workers to take their allotted leave time. Equally, managers should support employees going through difficult personal situations that require more time away from work than usual.

According to Jumpstart:HR, “It may seem like a bad move when there are deadlines to meet, but showing appreciation for employees’ personal lives gives workers a better sense of self-worth, which helps build gratitude toward the company and confidence in their roles.

 A sense of gratitude toward a sympathetic employer will act as a motivator on the job, much more so than deadline pressures or promises of rewards.

  • Focus on culture and collaboration. Ensure that employees have a safe and welcoming work environment that encourages innovation and collaboration — both in your physical offices and remotely.

This includes a pleasant area to take a break if you’re in the office and good collaboration tools to keep everyone connected, but it’s also about management attitude.

Managers must be open to and encourage employees to ask questions, speak up, and collaborate with their colleagues. Research has shown that collaboration inspires motivation, and people who worked together persisted longer on challenging tasks, expressed greater interest, were more engrossed, and performed better.

  • Compensate people appropriately. It’s hard to feel motivated when you know you’re not being paid a fair wage for your skills and talents. Employers must ensure they are paying at minimum the standard industry and geographical salaries.

Compensation is significant because it provides for our most basic needs. We are highly motivated to meet current and plan for future food and shelter needs. Top talent will leave an employer that isn’t keeping up with salary trends.

According to Inc., 26% of engaged employees will leave their job for a 5% increase in pay. And then the cost of replacing those employees will drive the spend higher than what the appropriate salary would have been in the first place.

  • Create healthy competition. Use a basic concept of psychology; encourage behaviour through rewards. It doesn’t have to be a trip to Cancun. Most people enjoy and are motivated by competition. Recognise top achievement — individual and team contributions —  with small and frequent rewards. It could be a gift card, or it could be an extra day off. Be creative.

But remember to keep it amiable. ‘Friendly’ competition between teams can encourage positive relationships and lead to feelings of esteem and recognition, leading to the desired sense of self-actualisation.

Motivating people by first focusing on their basic needs is an effective way to achieve greater engagement, reduce turnover and improve productivity. It can be inexpensive and straightforward, but the rewards are great.

Creating the environment and employee experience that fosters and supports sustainable motivation is worth the effort. However, like most other elements of people management, it’s not a one-and-done exercise.

‘People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.” – Zig Ziglar 

To sustain motivation within your organisation, don’t forget to involve your employees. Use brief surveys to gauge sentiment and engage individuals in casual conversation to understand how to adjust your tactics. Often a simple chat over a cup of coffee can lead to greater understanding.