Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of the best-known theories of motivation, suggests that humans are motivated to fulfil basic needs – like food, shelter, and safety – before striving to satisfy more complex needs: health, companionship, self-esteem, and self-actualisation.
So, we get jobs to satisfy our basic needs. Then, with food in our stomachs and decent rest, we start to crave fulfilment in things money can’t buy: appreciation and respect, making a valuable contribution to the world, and – the Holy Grail of motivation – using our talents and abilities to achieve our full potential.
It’s no coincidence that the best companies to work for have and share a clear direction, offer challenging work, and entrench appealing cultures. Their employees feel valued and are empowered through opportunities for advancement and expressions of gratitude.
This is why we can’t assume that giving people more money will make them work harder.
Money means little if staff are overworked and don’t have the time or energy to enjoy the financial rewards they receive. People also respond better to incentives that address their psychological need for acceptance, appreciation, and accomplishment. Let’s look briefly at the ways in which organisations can show appreciation for a job well done.
Show me the money?
Part of what makes us individuals is the fact that we’re motivated by different things. A graduate will appreciate a cash bonus. A new mother might also appreciate more money – but money can’t buy her more time with her baby. Flexible working hours can.
In fact, studies suggest that the effects of monetary rewards are short-lived because people don’t differentiate cash bonuses from their normal pay. Extra money is quickly sucked up by household expenses and debt – i.e. by working to fulfil our basic needs.
Now, that’s not to say that we should discount monetary rewards. I believe there’s a time and place for both – and your business and culture are two of the biggest deciding factors.
The industry you’re in and the type of work an employee does dictates the incentives you should offer. Some roles – like commission work – require a more financially motivated incentive system to ensure the smooth running of the business and to achieve personal targets. Salespeople bring in business, profit grows, salespeople are rewarded financially.
But admin and marketing staff, for example, receive set salaries and not commissions, so they can be acknowledged for excellent customer service or for improving an inefficient administration process. For them, training courses, movie tickets, vouchers, or even time off to pursue a personal passion project might offer a bigger thrill than money.
Any incentive programme must align with your company’s goals to ensure that the group works towards the same outcome. Employees are more likely to take ownership of their roles and responsibilities when their contribution to the bigger picture is acknowledged and rewarded. And, in pursuit of their own excellence, the business’s interests naturally benefit.
Successful reward programmes balance intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (when we do something because it aligns with our values and because we want the reward).
Getting this balance right is critical to retaining talent. Being passionate about work is one thing, but passion doesn’t pay the bills. Just as dangerous is having a workforce that’s only motivated by money but produces mediocre work. The magic happens when we reward employees for the outcomes of their passion: Happier customers and a healthier bottom line.
The sweet spot lies in incentivising positive behaviours as much as goal achievement. The behaviour might not be directly linked to the financial performance of the company but there may be other obvious benefits, like improved morale or an attractive company culture.
The power of gratitude
Positive behaviours needn’t be rewarded with money or redeemable points. A simple ‘thank you’ goes a long way. One study noted a 50% increase in the amount of additional help being offered as a result of appreciation, suggesting that motivation extends past material things. And a boost in self-esteem ticks all the right boxes in Maslow’s fourth level of needs.
Although basic, recognition and appreciation are often overlooked motivators. The same study found that only 15% of us consistently say ‘thank you’ at work. According to another study, 79% of employees quit their jobs because they didn’t feel appreciated.
Positive behaviours can be subtly reinforced using tactics like leader boards, employee-of-the-month posters, floating trophies, free lunch, or time off. It’s the little things that count.
As individuals get older and enter different phases of our lives, there’s an evolution in the things that motivate them. As leaders, we need to build meaningful relationships with our staff, to better understand what motivates an individual today, not what motivated them five years ago. This depends on constant communication and open engagement and feedback.
Bottom line? We need to think differently about motivation and to apply creativity and innovation to company incentive programmes. Aim to align business and individual goals through a balance of monetary and non-monetary rewards, and you’ll soon see a massive impact on the bottom line and staff morale. There can be no greater incentive than that.