Monkey Puzzle Blog

Motivation Shoes

The truth about motivational changes in careers over time

Motivation is often talked about, much researched, and prized goal of many leaders. Research shows it can provide a measurable competitive advantage, improve creativity, raise employee engagement levels as well as adding bottom line profitability.

But what really motivates people in their careers, and how can organisations and their leaders use this knowledge to maximise the contribution of their people?

In our work, we often hear ‘he or she is not motivated’ and regularly get asked the question, how do we motivate the team? These questions reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivation is and where motivation sits. As David McLelland, a Harvard psychologist said, ‘I don’t understand the question, how do you motivate someone. Anyone who is alive is motivated’. So, the question leaders need to ask is - what are their staff motivated about and how can they connect with that motivation in a way that is useful for them and the organisation?

What really motivates in the workplace?

Motivation is an essential element of human life and essentially relates to the underlying core needs that we each have, and which need to be met if we are to feel motivated by whatever we do. Motivation is therefore within the individual and not owned by or provided by a leader. For this reason, many organisations and leaders are wasting a lot of time money and energy trying to motivate employees - instead of getting to know what motivates them.

I have always been curious about motivation in the workplace and late last year I carried out research on behalf of Strathclyde University to see if motivation changed over a person’s career. I obtained data from over 50 professional employees spread from early career all the way to nearing retirement. I used David McLelland’s ‘power, achievement, and affiliation motivational needs theory’ as we use this with all our clients which they all find hugely practical and informative.

The research provided a seem of rich information and learning that we are applying directly to our work today. From all of this learning there are two important lessons about motivating employees:

1. People are motivated by different needs and this does not change over time

Whilst there may be different things that matter to a person during their career, the research showed that the core motivation of individuals did not change. For example:

  • Those who were interested in power: the need for control and influence remained so throughout their career.
  • Those interested in achievement: the need for quality, complexity, and continuous improvement remained their drivers.
  • Employees interested in affiliation: the need to create and maintain good working relationships were as motivated by this at the end of their career as they were at the start.

Knowing this, a leader can truly connect with every member of their team. They can do this by building up a clear, individual, and sustainable model of how to work with their team to maximise their contribution to the business - at the same time as the employee is feeling fulfilled, rewarded, and engaged.

We and our clients have found this knowledge invaluable at a team and organisational level and the business benefits have been tangible and positive.

2. Leaders need to understand their own motivations

Leaders, as individuals in their own right, also have different motivations. By discovering which of the 3 motivational needs is their preference they can help a leader know how to structure their work, what to focus their time and energy on, and what is likely to prove challenging to them. It also helps leaders explain their frustrations with peers and team members who have different, though equally valuable, motivational needs.

This knowledge can help reduce tension, improve rapport and ensure team members are focussed on the tasks and projects that most reflect what they find valuable and rewarding which, when aligned to the organisational goals, will be of significant financial benefit.

In conclusion

As our research confirms, motivation is within the individual and not owned by or provided by a leader. What’s more, the things that motivate them are likely to remain constant throughout their careers. As such, the organisations that produce truly motivated people will be those that invest the effort in discovering the core needs of their people and what actually motivates them. It is then down to the organisation to use this knowledge to create a culture that satisfies their motivational needs.

For further information

Myself and Karen Meager discuss motivation, communication, and how to get the best out of small teams, and also cover the work of David McLelland in this article for the Business Advice website.

Leadership and motivation are also covered in our book, Real Leaders for the Real World, where we look at the essential traits of successful and authentic leaders. Download a free chapter here.

John McLachlan

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