New Research Shows What Motivates Workers to Achieve Better Results

Oct 26, 2015
9 Min Read

When other companies try to replicate the culture of organizations such as Netflix or Starbucks, the results are uneven because there are few clear roadmaps about how to achieve similar results. But a new book outlines the science and data on how other companies can build the same high-performing cultures.

Lindsay McGregor says she understands why many companies have turned their corporate backs on the idea of investing in cultural changes touted to drive better employee engagement, productivity, innovation and collaboration.

“They just didn’t have anyone who could prove to them it worked,” she says. “They couldn’t go to the boardroom and say that you get better bottom-line results by changing the culture.”

That may all change with a new bestseller, “Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation,” by McGregor and Neel Doshi. In the book, the authors use data and science to show how and why employee motivation drives better results. They make motivation measurable, torpedoing any notion that great workplace cultures are anomalies, or based on fuzzy thinking.

In other words, you don’t have to try to copy Amazon or Apple, but can instead create a culture that fits best with your organization and spurs employees to innovate, experiment and adapt. (Doshi and McGregor have designed a Total Motivation Survey that helps determine the motivations behind work, the same survey they have administered to thousands of employees at 50 major companies.)

The bottom line: Why people work determines how well they work.

Specifically, the most important “whys” are play, purpose and potential. When an employee works for these reasons, then their performance is stronger and they execute better. But, when they work for emotional or economic reasons, then their performance is weakened.

“We may believe that anyone would do jumping jacks for a long time for $10,000. But in the long term, that doesn’t inspire anyone to keep it up,” McGregor says.

Research by Doshi and McGregor shows the road to what works – and what does not – when it comes to motivating workers to achieve better results includes:

  • Play. If an employee enjoys the work, then the work itself is the reward. At the heart of play are curiosity and experimentation, and people intrinsically enjoy learning and adapting. While some companies may think installing a foosball table is a way for employees to play, the key is that the motive must be fueled by the work itself. It’s not supposed to be a distraction.
  • Purpose. This is when an employee values the outcome of the work, and its impact. An organization can create an authentic purpose for just about any type of work, but must be careful that it feels credible to workers. If not, it can backfire. The motivation of purpose isn’t as powerful a driver of performance as play.
  • Potential. An employee does the work because she believes it will eventually lead to something she believes is important, such as a personal goal. For example, someone may work as a paralegal because she wants to become a lawyer. Filing briefs may not be much fun (no play motive), and she may not care about the clients (no purpose motive), but she does the job because she wants to become a public defender.

While potential isn’t as great of a motivator as play or purpose, it is still a driver of performance. Unlike the next three “indirect” motives that the authors say reduce performance:

  • Emotional pressure. When an employee feels disappointment, guilt or shame when doing a job, then performance suffers. For example, a junior employee in a meeting with a senior leader may be so worried about what the boss thinks of him that he chokes under pressure. That emotional pressure can be reduced by companies, however, by using coaches to help employees cope with the fear of failure.
  • Economic pressure.  This often happens when an employee is trying to get a bonus or a pay raise – the motive for the work is separate from the work itself and the person’s identity. If money is the only reason an employee does the job, then performance will be affected. But if there are other reasons, then money won’t cause problems. That’s why, the authors stress, organizations need to understand all the motives behind why an employee does a job.
  • Inertia. An employee whose motive is so far apart from the work itself that he can no longer say where it comes from leads to the worst performance of all. The person is doing the work simply because he did it yesterday. Unfortunately, the authors say inertia is “surprisingly common” in the workplace, with a large proportion of the employee population feeling they work in their current job for no good reason.

Another key finding for those considering changing their culture based on the science provided is that it helps prevent leaders from becoming “frozen.” Leaders – especially when a company or department is scaling up -- may adopt practices that make them and their company more rigid, McGregor explains.

“It’s really tempting to try and make an organization work like clockwork, because it makes you (leader) feel in control,” McGregor explains. “But as you create more rules, you prevent your employees from adapting to new customers or new competitors.”

For those leaders who may scoff that they don’t have time to figure out each employee’s motivation and then take steps to keep him or her engaged, some statistics might change a few minds. Specifically, McGregor says that a study of 105 tech companies found a “statistically significant connection” between how much a CEO led through these principles of motivation and company performance up two years later.

“The correlation was .54 – very high for something as fuzzy as leadership style,” the authors say. “Leaders that encourage total motivation create higher performing organizations – you don’t have to choose between the two.”

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