The Psychology of Motivation: Understanding What Drives Your Employees and Encourages Their Best Performance

Motivation in the workplace is paramount. If your employees feel like they’re in a Groundhog Day-type loop, they’re much more likely to give a lackluster performance. However, getting employees motivated is substantially more than placing a carrot on a stick—motivation psychology is a field of psychology that looks at motivation as a whole. 

The textbook definition of motivation psychology from the American Psychological Association reads, “the impetus that gives purpose or direction to behavior and operates in humans at a conscious or unconscious level.” However, in much more familiar terms, motivation psychology looks at how all variables work together to contribute to an employee’s motivation or lack thereof—biological, psychological, and environmental. Read on to learn more about motivation and the psychology behind it.

A photo of a highly motivated Sherpa carrying a large load on his back

What Are the Different Types of Motivation?

Researchers in the field have identified four distinct types of motivation. Knowing more about what the underlying drive is in your employees can certainly help with employee motivation strategies. Understanding your employees can help you better “tap” into what they need to be driven. What is the psychology behind motivation? The different types of motivation, with examples, are:

  • External. As the name suggests, external motivation refers to something outside of yourself. For example, receiving a large bonus when a project is completed is an example of external motivation in the workplace.
  • Introjected. The self drives this type of motivation and correlates with your self-image. An example of introjected motivation is working overtime when asked to be better regarded by other employees and those in management. 
  • Identified. This is when the goal also aligns with something personal in you. For example, if you are a non-profit for a specific cause and your employee believes strongly in that cause, that will increase their workforce motivation.
  • Intrinsic. Simply put, intrinsic motivation occurs when you’re enjoying something for the sake of enjoying it, and this is your motivation. So, for example, if employees truly enjoy managing a team, they will be more motivated.

Motivation in the workplace and motivation theory can go much deeper; Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often mentioned in context with motivational psychology. But the question here is, what motivates employees to perform their best, and how can you keep them motivated?

Tips to Motivate Your Team

Employee motivation is a process that evolves. Here are some tips that are a good starting point if you’re finding your employees unmotivated:

  • Listen carefully to what your people need. This is important, especially regarding roadblocks that keep them from doing their jobs effectively. I’d like you to conduct frequent discussions and brainstorming sessions to show that you take their concerns seriously. Your employees are closest to your customers, so any obstacles that prevent them from doing their jobs well will hurt the business.
  • Reinforce the purpose of your business. Your employees must understand why the company exists and the vision and mission statement. They also need to know your purpose as their leader. If there’s no bigger picture behind your business than making a profit, it will be hard to motivate your team. They need to be able to believe in your company. 
  • Be respectful to everyone on your team regardless of job, seniority, rank, or working style. Never show favoritism. Perceived favoritism is the catalyst for team breakdowns and dysfunctional behavior.
  • Remove poor performers quickly. This is one of the most essential tips for motivation in the workplace. Everyone knows who the slackers are; chances are your employees are complaining that you haven’t realized it or are too afraid to fire them. No one will try to go above and beyond if mediocrity is rewarded the same as excellence. Your credibility increases when you respond urgently to poor performance. 
  • Celebrate successes passionately. We tend to focus on what isn’t done instead of what we have accomplished. Breathe, celebrate, congratulate, and acknowledge the contributors that make your wins happen. 
  • Encourage everyone to be intellectually curious. The only way to discover new ideas and processes is through curiosity. Give your employees the ability to branch out and learn more about skills or subjects they’re passionate about. It will bring a new level of dimension and understanding to their jobs. 
  • Emphasize job security. Your employees can’t work to the best of their abilities if their primary motivation is fear of getting fired. Ensure the disciplinary process is clear to all so no one is worried they’ll be jobless without any notice. 

What Are Some Nonmaterial Motivators?

In nonmaterial motivation, you use motivators other than cash to promote motivation in the workplace. While bonuses and raises are always great motivators, they’re not always viable or possible. 

You can tap into intrinsic motivation by allowing employees time on the site to work on their projects. When employees have time to do something they enjoy, they’re naturally more motivated. An offer of a flexible work schedule is also a bonus—perhaps you can offer a hybrid schedule where your employee works from home two days a week. 

Time off or extra PTO, especially after the completion of a project or another accomplishment, will always be appreciated by an employee. Public recognition, awards, and certificates of merit can also be strong motivators. Knowledge of the opportunity to advance in a corporation is also strong regarding employee motivation. If an employee has an idea that they can advance in the company, they’ll work for it. 

Bottom line – put yourself in the shoes of your team. What would you appreciate? What drives you? What drives you won’t be the same as what drives someone else, but it’s up to you to brainstorm ideas for collaboration and motivation. Sometimes, a business coach can help get you on the right track for optimal employee motivation

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Coach Dave

Dave Schoenbeck
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