Motivation in the Modern Workplace

Credentialed researchers have been investigating the topic of motivation in the workplace for quite a while (massive understatement!). Two contributing pioneers from “the way-back machine” in that regard were Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg.

The Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1954)

In essence, this framework established (beyond all reasonable doubt) that human beings are indeed complicated creatures! We have multiple needs competing inside of us every hour of every day. At any point in time, the strongest of those needs will provide the most accurate forecast of our behavior (i.e., why we do … what we do!).

The hierarchy itself is distinguished by lower and higher order needs. Lower order needs encompass our instincts to survive, stay safe and, somewhat beyond that, interact with others. Higher order needs embody our desires to lead purpose-driven lives, achieve mastery and operate autonomously.

Motivation/Hygiene Theory (Herzberg, 1966)

An extensive study that effectively identified two separate and distinct lists:

  1. The elements of work that resulted in job-related dissatisfaction (hygiene factors)
  2. The elements of work that resulted in job-related satisfaction (motivators)

It is important to emphasize that these were independent lists (i.e., the sources of job dissatisfaction emanated from the work environment, and the sources of job satisfaction were imbedded in the job itself).

Dissatisfiers, which adversely impacted workplace motivation, were largely a function of lower order needs (i.e., working conditions, pay, security, supervision, interpersonal relations). Satisfiers, which positively impacted workplace motivation, were largely a function of higher order needs (i.e., challenging work, recognition for accomplishment, increased responsibility, growth and development).

Fast-forward approximately 70 years to the findings of the Josh Bersin Company in their comprehensive 2022 HR Report on The Employee Experience (and while doing so, keep in mind how drastically different the contemporary workplace is in every conceivable way from whatever was going on in the 1950s and 60s). According to Bersin, and in the context of Maslow and Herzberg, here are the organizational qualities that motivate the modern worker:

  • Meaningful Work: (Higher Order Need; Motivator) Employees spend a significant amount of their lives at work. As such, they are motivated by the prospect of having their efforts contribute to the achievement of a noble purpose
  • Strong Management: (Higher/Lower Order Needs; Motivator/Hygiene Factor) Employees are motivated by managers that establish/negotiate clear performance expectations and provide timely, performance-based feedback. That “ebb and flow” tends to enhance role-related confidence and reduce performance-related insecurity/anxiety
  • Positive Workplace: (Lower Order Needs; Hygiene Factor) Employees are motivated by a culture that demonstrates zero tolerance for “bad behavior.” People prefer to work in an upbeat environment that is responsive, enjoyable and inclusive
  • Health & Wellbeing: (Lower Order Needs; Hygiene Factor) Employees are motivated by a culture that values wellness by tangibly prioritizing the physical and psychological fitness of all who work there. This frequently takes the form of convenient access to both facilities and expertise/coaching as well as the integration of health and wellbeing with business priorities
  • Growth Opportunity: (Higher Order Need; Motivator) Employees are motivated by a culture grounded in life-long learning and personal development. That is particularly the case for employees who have both potential and aspiration, but struggle to identify the particulars of where they want to go with their career
  • Trust in Management: (Lower Order Need; Hygiene Factor) Employees value transparency in their relationships with all levels of management. “The walk” of organizational leaders needs to align with “the talk.” When it doesn’t, it adversely impacts employee confidence, commitment and decision-making

It is truly difficult to imagine what life in an organization was like back in the day of Maslow and Herzberg. Understandably, most of us don’t have the time or energy to actively consider it. But as different as it unquestionably was, consider the notion that the keys to motivating employees in the modern workplace have elements of undeniable consistency.