George Dickson - February 12, 2020 -
9 Min Read

Is your company culture increasing employee motivation?

Is Your Company Culture Increasing Employee Motivation?

Company culture can be a potent source of motivation for your team or an equally powerful obstacle to it. Where does yours land, and how can you improve it?

We recently spent time carefully evaluating our own core cultural values -- how they relate to our own motivations, the culture we’ve built, and the culture we’re continually striving to shape. That exercise motivated us to come back to this topic, explore it in greater depth, and bring even greater value and perspective to it for 2020.

Shaping Organizational Culture

Some view organizational culture as an ethereal force of nature that is difficult, expensive, or impractical to control, so they don’t try. Others oversimplify it, dusting their hands off after a quick ‘about us’ page update.

The truth is, it’s both simple and monumentally challenging to build the type of company culture that inspires and sustains motivation and engagement.

Wait… how is it both simple and challenging?

Just like a game of chess or Jenga, the basic concepts of building a resilient, motivational organizational culture are simple; the challenge lies in their application and the influence of those you’re building it with.

Why is employee motivation important?

If you do succeed -- even incrementally -- in this effort, you are likely to see a positive impact across myriad areas from employee productivity to business profitability.

So let’s examine those basic concepts and start building the necessary scaffolding for a culture that motivates your team and fosters engagement.

What drives people at work?

The list of things that drive individuals at work is practically endless, but the things that drive people at work are a bit more realistic to grasp and deliver on.

The key is to have a base level of understanding of the science of human motivation, and while there has been a great deal of academic research focused on this topic, you don’t need a PhD to access its benefits.

Understanding Employee Motivation

Motivation is the fuel that propels your organization forward. When it waxes, you surge ahead; when it wanes, your momentum stalls. The motivation level of your team not only has a direct impact on that momentum, but also the quality and quantity of output.

Managers, researchers, and academics in various disciplines throughout history have formed and evangelized employee motivation theories -- each scratching at the surface of a unifying theory -- some with more efficacy and lasting impact than others.

As a result, employee motivation programs of various styles and philosophical grounding have come and gone over the years. Just like fashion, motivational theories go in and out of style, but there are still some core ideas that will likely always be relevant. Of those core ideas, we’re going to zero in on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and motivational hygiene.

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is an external motivational force. You can apply extrinsic motivation to someone or yourself through various means, though its effects are limited to the span of time in which it’s applied.

Extrinsic motivation examples would be things like:

  • Practicing piano - because you have a big concert coming up
  • Working on an app - because you’re paid to work on it and need the money to sustain your lifestyle
  • Cooking all evening - because you’re a line cook and tickets keep rolling in
  • Tidying up - because your housemates are tired of seeing your stuff everywhere and they left you a blunt ultimatum
  • Reading a book - because you’ll be tested on its contents
  • Mowing the lawn - because your neighborhood association will fine you if you don’t

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation comes from within an individual. Because it’s not something you can apply to someone, intrinsic motivation is often considered a much more difficult element to influence.

Intrinsic motivation examples for the same activities would be things like:

  • Practicing piano - because you enjoy the feeling of making music
  • Working on an app - because you’re excited to bring something new to life
  • Cooking all evening - because you enjoy transforming raw ingredients into something special
  • Tidying up - because you love the feeling of a clean, organized living space
  • Reading a book - because you love the burst of inspiration you feel after learning something new
  • Mowing the lawn - because it’s a calm, zenlike experience you cherish in an otherwise tumultuous week.

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as it relates to leading teams?

Because applying extrinsic motivators is often a more straightforward intervention, it’s often the route organizations and managers take. This manifests itself as things like salary (or compensation packages in general), attendance policies, managerial pressure, and other similar components.

Intrinsic motivation is often viewed as challenging to instill, but like a flywheel, it requires a great deal less intervention after the initial effort expended toward getting it started. While it’s true that you can’t directly apply intrinsic motivation to someone the same way you can apply extrinsic motivation, you absolutely can help to inspire it.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation aren’t mutually exclusive. The best organized employee experiences don’t rely entirely on either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, but rather leverage the interplay and benefits of both.

For example: it’s entirely possible to cultivate an environment that inspires a software engineer with a truly interesting, important, and rewarding set of problems to solve, while compensating her well for the effort she’s applying toward solving them.

Motivational hygiene

While it may seem like a significant challenge to begin with, it’s not enough to simply motivate your team.

Freidrich Herzeberg’s seminal work on the topic of employee motivation uncovered a crucial truth. Job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction aren’t simply two ends of one spectrum--they’re individual spectrums on their own. As he explains in his Harvard Business Review article:

“...the factors involved in producing job satisfaction (and motivation) are separate and distinct from the factors that lead to job dissatisfaction….The opposite of job satisfaction is not job dissatisfaction but, rather, no job satisfaction; and similarly, the opposite of job dissatisfaction is not job satisfaction, but no job dissatisfaction.”

This means that in practice you need to work just as hard to mitigate demotivational factors as you do to add or enhance motivational factors if you want to develop a company culture that draws and keeps great talent.

In other words, installing a ping-pong table in your office won’t make up for line managers who make their direct reports cry at their desk once a week.

While it’s possible for the same factor to be motivational or demotivational, according to Herzberg, some factors have an outsized representation on one side over the other.

Motivational Factors

Herzberg’s research showed that some of the most common motivational factors for employees are things like achievement, recognition, and the work itself.

You may recognize a connection to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation here.

For example, you can’t give someone a sense of achievement, but you can influence that sense of achievement through recognition and the work itself.

By fostering an organizational culture that cultivates motivational factors, you’ll be driving energy to that flywheel of intrinsic motivation.

Demotivational factors

Herzberg also outlined a handful of common demotivating factors as well, including company policy, supervision, and the relationship between employees and their supervisors.

Think of these factors as brakes on that same flywheel of intrinsic motivation--they only work to slow it.

By eliminating demotivational factors where you can and mitigating the impact of those you can't eliminate, you won't be giving momentum to the motivational flywheel, but you will be freeing it up to gain momentum.

How Culture Influences Employee Motivation

As Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi explain in their Harvard Business Review article on the topic, an organization’s cultural climate has a direct influence on employee motivation. Simply put, “Why we work determines how we work.”

It’s no wonder that companies known for having positive corporate cultures—such as Trader Joe's and Southwest Airlines—actively cultivate positive motivational factors and work to mitigate demotivational factors.

The hallmark of a strong company culture is a motivated, engaged workforce. How your organization accomplishes that could differ significantly from the way others do, and that’s ok. There is no ideal company culture to work toward; only an ideal culture for your company.

Part of the beauty and the inherent challenge is that each organization, each team within it, and each individual on the team is unique. Because of that, the motivational and demotivational factors that drive your team might seem completely different from those of others at face value. However, there are often commonalities and themes among them.

For example: you might expect the culture of two banking firms to reflect one another more closely than the cultures of a banking firm, a West Coast startup, and a fast food chain.

Despite their many dissimilarities though, the fast food chain, startup, and banking firms might authentically share the value of employee empowerment, while the other banking firm applies a command-and-control leadership style.

Leadership is Crucial

Why is leadership important to employee motivation--shouldn’t employees naturally be motivated by their salary and benefits?

Your compensation package is important, but in comparison to other motivational factors, it’s table stakes. Good employees have the luxury of choice, and if you don’t think they’re receiving (or entertaining) enticing offers from other organizations, you’re probably wrong.

One of the most important aspects of leadership is perspective; how you shape your own perspective, and that of your team. No matter what kind of work you’re doing, you can help illuminate the purpose in it for yourself and your team in order to help build a foundation for intrinsic motivation to grow.

Taking a page from Herzberg -- rather than focusing on being a “cool” boss, focus on not being a bad boss while supporting your team’s sense of achievement, ownership, and growth.

Poor Employee Motivation Harms Businesses

Strengthening employee engagement and motivation seems like an obvious goal for every business--so you might expect to see it as the norm, rather than an exception. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Poor engagement is widespread.

According to Gallup’s “State of the American Workplace” report, a mere 30 percent of U.S. workers feel engaged at work, while 20 percent feel actively disengaged. The remaining 50 percent are not engaged.

Gallup also outlined some of the detrimental effects of low motivation on today’s businesses:

The top 25% of teams — the best managed — versus the bottom 25% in any workplace — the worst managed — have nearly 50% fewer accidents and have 41% fewer quality defects. What’s more, teams in the top 25% versus the bottom 25% incur far less in healthcare costs.

Improving employee motivation is a worthwhile goal, but how do you know the steps you’re taking are making leading you there?

Measuring and Improving Employee Motivation and Engagement

Before you can effectively address obstacles to motivation or work to inspire it, it’s crucial to have a baseline measurement. In order to know how well your plans and initiatives are working, it’s equally important to have a consistent, reliable stream of data to measure against that baseline.

It might be tempting to measure your baseline against industry benchmarks, but the most important measurement is whether you’re moving in a positive or negative direction. It’s irrelevant to your success whether you’re at “level 22” of motivation today and your competitor is at “level 44.” What matters most is that the next time you check, your level is moving in a positive trajectory.

How can companies assess employee motivation?

Until recently, traditional surveys were the only way to gather that information, and their cumbersome nature (on both the administration and participation side) kept them from being leveraged effectively, or in some cases, at all.

New tools and methodologies make it much easier to gather this type of information in context, and in a way that limits distractions.

If you need a tool to reach your team in the context of their work, we've got you covered! 

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One way to deploy that sort of tool toward improving motivation would be to analyze and calculate a Total Motivation (or “ToMo”) score.

Organizations with higher ToMo scores enjoy stronger employee engagement—which can lead to increased customer satisfaction and revenues. In fact, one study found that organizations with high ToMo scores earned 38% more in revenues than those with low ToMo scores.

Frequent check-ins can identify minor employee concerns before they evolve into disengagement. Managers can use tools like Polly to gather continuous insights on employee satisfaction. Then, they can apply these insights to implement the necessary changes to strengthen engagement.

In addition, your team leaders can hold regular huddles to talk about how employees foster play, purpose, and potential in their work. Leaders can also discuss the business rationale behind key decisions—and involve employees in defining roles and processes to create a high-performing team.

Giving employees a voice in scheduling and agenda setting for team meetings can help instill a sense of ownership in the team and company mission.

Pulse surveys are another useful way to gather continuous insights on the levels of employee engagement in your organization.

Building a Culture of Employee Motivation

Culture might seem intangible, but research has proven that it is more science than magic. Studies consistently validate the benefits of cultivating a positive cultural environment, including increased employee motivation, heightened innovation, reduced costs, and higher profits.

With modern employees valuing purpose, workplace atmosphere, and autonomy equally or greater than compensation, it is clear that the effort you invest in building and strengthening your culture is well spent.

George Dickson

Written by George Dickson

Lives to learn and build cool things with good people.