Three Things that Actually Motivate Employees

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by Rosabeth Moss Kanter  |   10:00 AM October 23, 2013

The most motivated and productive people I’ve seen recently work in an older company on the American East Coast deploying innovative technology products to transform a traditional industry. To a person, they look astonished when I ask whether their dedication comes from anticipation of the money they could make in the event of an IPO.

Newcomers and veterans alike say they are working harder than ever before. Their products are early stage, which means daily frustrations as they run through successive iterations. Getting them to market demands more than corporate systems can handle, so they must beg for IT upgrades, recruit and budget themselves, and even take on sales responsibilities to explain innovations to customers — which adds to the workload. So much pressure, yet they don’t seem to care about the money?

One person says that he can’t let himself think about an IPO. It’s too remote; it distracts from doing the work, and the work is the important thing. Another says she is most excited about the opportunity to change how the industry operates and have a big impact on improving lives. The chorus of voices is consistent: “We take the work in directions we choose.” “We’re working on the most advanced technology.” “Our products change lives.” Moreover, they have the joy of self-expression. One sales manager, a former actor, recited Shakespeare at a customer meeting and won over skeptical executives.

For these professionals, a future IPO is outweighed by today’s OPI — the opportunity for positive impact.

OPIs exert a strong appeal wherever I find them. In a different company in a middle American city, I talked with a couple meeting with a caterer to finalize details of their wedding — which was going to take place in the office lobby. Imagine that — people who feel so connected to their workplace that they want to get married there.

Both companies embrace a digital future still being invented. Yet leaders have turned change from exhausting to exhilarating by asking employees to open their imaginations. Although some professionals see transformation as a threat, most find chances for creative expression, especially as the companies evolve from siloed departments to flexible collaboration. Employees are encouraged to work on the best and latest concepts. Emphasis has shifted from output to impact – from how many products are sold to how much the products enrich people’s lives in the broader society.

There are no promises that these jobs will last forever. Loyalty comes from the daily work itself, a sense of community accepting of individuality, and constant reminders that what employees do matters.

I summarize these keys to strong work motivation in three Ms — mastery, membership, and meaning. Money is a distant fourth. Money can even be an irritant if compensation is not adequate or fair, and compensation runs out of steam quickly as a source of sustained performance. Instead, people happy in their work are often found in mission-driven organizations where people feel they have positive impact on social needs. As my HBS colleague Michael Norton shows in his book Happy Money, giving to others boosts happiness.

Unfortunately, happiness at work is rare. Numerous polls show low levels of work engagement in U.S. companies, with perhaps half of employees disengaged and disaffected. That’s an appalling finding. I think the problem is that human resource policy too often centers around compensation and benefits and not around the nature of the work itself. In contrast, the high-performance teams in sports and business I studied for my book Confidence focus on the work and its impact. They work harder, longer, and yet with more energy than low-performance teams. They make a difference day by day, making progress through small wins — a key to motivation that another HBS colleague, Teresa Amabile, studies in The Progress Principle.

To tap the three Ms, leaders at all levels can rethink how they define their strategy, jobs, and culture. They can:

Mastery: Help people develop deep skills. Stretch goals show faith that people can shape the future rather than being victimized by it, and find pride in constant learning. Even in the most seemingly routine areas, when people are given difficult problems to tackle, with appropriate and tools and support, they can do things faster, smarter, and better.

Membership: Create community by honoring individuality.  Community solidarity comes from allowing the whole person to surface, which means going beyond superficial conformity to know what else people care about. Encourage employees to bring outside interests to work. Given them frequent opportunities to meet people across the organization to help them get to know one another more deeply.

Meaning: Repeat and reinforce a larger purpose. Emphasize the positive impact of the work they do. Clarity about how your products or services can improve the world provides guideposts for employees’ priorities and decisions. As part of the daily conversation, mission and purpose can make even mundane tasks a means to a larger end.

Highly-engaged people who contribute more of themselves can produce Shakespeare recitations that win customers, weddings in office lobbies that build community, or the ultimate prize: innovations that change the world.

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