Are You Open to a Variety of Motivations at Work?

I remember listening to a company director one day, musing on his observations of employees.

“I’d like to see everyone want to develop and advance, you know, show more initiative and ambition.”

I commend him on wanting to see the humans beings in his organization grow, develop and succeed. At the same time I couldn’t help but think that if everyone were as ambitious as he, they would all be lining up for his job.

We want people to have different ambitions and motivations for a reason

We have a wide range of jobs in organizations. We need people who are happy to do those jobs. There is nothing wrong with people being happy where they are – as long as they are happy and productive.

I recently posed this question on social media.

“Managers, why do you think that some of your very talented employees are satisfied with being in the middle of the pack?”

My colleague Mat Boyer shared a great perspective. He brought up the elephant/stake story. Somewhere along the way someone made them think they can only go as far as the rope will let them. They could be sending this message to themselves. So from their perspective they could be working to their full potential.

I’ve asked very talented employees what made them stay where they were. In my mind’s eye I could see some shake their heads indicating I would never get it. I heard things like: It pays the bills. The work isn’t bad. I enjoy my coworkers.

It still may not be for the reason you think

Long ago a colleague shared with me an assessment she put together to help managers and employees get on the same page about motivations. It included common items like this.

  • Recognition from top management
  • Salary increases
  • Company paid education

It also included items like:

  • The challenge of a difficult task
  • Creative freedom
  • Relief from unpleasant duties
  • Assignment of new duties
  • Access to preferred equipment
  • Encouragement from their manager
  • Time spent with their manager
  • Influence over tasks and goals
  • Personal control over time

Some might not consider these viable options to feed human motivations at work, but why not?

You can’t afford to ignore differences

Whether you appreciate the differences or not, ignoring the diversity of human motivations can negatively affect productivity and retention over time.

I remember once asking a boss to fund an affordable 2-year skill-building program related to my work. He didn't see the connection and turned me down.

A few months later he told me to find a workshop to fulfill my development requirement for the year. I did. He approved it. It was good, but didn't inspire me like the one I asked for. It turned out the 12-hour workshop plus travel expenses cost about the same as the 2-year program I requested.

Would it have been so hard to go deeper to comprehend my request and gain some goodwill with a solid performer?

Be open to other motivations

I eventually used the motivation assessment with my boss so we could understand each other better. Unfortunately due to a string of events it was too late to turn things around between us but I got the experience of the discussion.

I wonder what would happen if you chose to learn more about your employees' motivations. You can even take the initiative to allow your boss to learn about you.

Humans crave things like autonomy, belonging, recognition, growth and meaningful work. Even if some of these things don't speak to you, cultivate an environment that supports a variety of motivations. Enhance the satisfaction and productivity of more employees and everybody wins.


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