As business people, we’ve been taught to manage what we can measure. Money, time, customer and employee counts—the ‘tangibles.’ We’ve gotten so used to talking about the numbers—about what we do—that we forget to address how or why we do it.
Yet, the ‘why’ driving employee behaviors is directly correlated with their motivation and performance in the workplace.
Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted several studies on motivation in the workplace. In one experiment, he gave subjects a piece of paper with a simple written task to complete. Ariely then reacted in three different fashions when the participants completed the task. In some cases, he took the completed paper, looked at it, gave a satisfied “uh-huh,” and put it on a stack of other papers. In other cases, he took merely glanced at the paper before putting it on the pile. In other cases, he didn’t even look at the paper. He put it directly in a shredder.
Participants were offered money to complete the tasks, and the amount decreased with each repetition. This continued until subjects declined to complete another task.
The people whose work was acknowledged (“uh-huh”) continued working until the payout dropped to 15 cents per page. Those whose work was ignored and placed on the pile continued until the payout dropped to 27 cents. Finally, subjects whose work was shredded stopped when the payout reached 30 cents per page.
Ignoring people’s performance was essentially the same as shredding their work in front of their eyes. The simple act of acknowledging a person’s output dramatically improves employee engagement.
Money isn’t the only motivation driver. In fact, it’s often not even the biggest driver for employees. Many people value meaning, progress, advancement, creativity, challenge, ownership, and pride even more.
If we only took action in return for payment, no one would climb mountains, start companies, or take risks. Human beings are naturally drawn to challenge themselves in hopes of achieving a sense of progress, accomplishment, and self-worth.
To understand these motivations in the workplace, let’s flashback to Psychology 101 and Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. First published in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in the Psychological Review, Maslow’s five-tier pyramid showed a series of needs that could be met only when the one below was satisfied.
Consider the bottom-most level—physiological needs like water, air, food, and shelter. Moving up, we can address safety needs like personal security, financial security, health, and well-being. Social needs are interpersonal, like intimacy and belonging with friends and family. Esteem is the need to feel respected, accepted, and valued by others, including both self-esteem and self-respect, established through a sense of contribution and value. Self-actualization is the realization of your full potential, or ‘be all that you can be.’
No matter our role in the workplace, we all have these human needs. Companies should strive to develop cultures that act as catalysts for high levels of transformation and transcendence. A job must be more than just a paycheck.
A paycheck and benefits are expected. But rewarding interactions with people, meaningful work, and a sense of accomplishment are the things that really matter to employees. And according to Ariely’s experiment, they matter a lot—so much so that people would work for half as much money if their motivation was stronger.
So, how can we manage the higher-level intangibles? Especially when they’re difficult to measure?
Google developed a leadership program called “Search Inside Yourself” that promotes self-actualization and transcendence at work. Google realized that self-actualized people tend to exude characteristics such as innovation, mindfulness, humor, compassion, and creativity—all of which are highly profitable for business.
Google’s proving that you don’t have to choose between inspired employees and financial success. Inspired employees lead to financial success.
As Start with Why author Simon Sinek explains in his inspiring TED talk, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. . . The goal is not to do business with people who need what you have, but with people who believe what you believe.”
Sinek notes how most organizations start with what they do, then how they do it, and end with why (if they get there at all). The most influential organizations, on the other hand, reverse that thought process.
Apple is known for the statement: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo, in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed and simple to use. We just happen to make great computers, want to buy one?”
What you do simply serves as the proof of what you believe. And what you believe, the intangible why you do what you do, is what can motivate employees, engage loyal customers, earn the faith of investors, and inspire true transformation.
Also published in FirstPerson.