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The motivation challenge in the workplace 

As the challenges of the 21st century become even tougher , the pressure placed on employers continues to mount. It is no wonder that in this environment, senior organisational leaders are prioritising talent acquisition, talent engagement and talent retention.  

Senior organisational leaders are also defining talent primarily in relation to the so called ‘soft skills’ such as the values, attitudes, behaviours and motivations that individuals possess, rather than their technical skills. After all, and as the mantra goes: technical skills can be trained but personalities cannot be changed.  

Motivation for work 

In this thought piece, I have decided to focus upon one key topic: motivation for work. Motivation is key in the workplace because, after all, talent cannot be talent unless it exudes high levels of motivation, and organisational success cannot be achieved without high levels of motivation.  

A key question becomes: are sources of employee motivation changing and are organisations adapting their approaches to motivation to ensure they are current? 

The view has been expressed in advanced economies and amongst new generations entering the workplace, that there has been a fundamental shift in the sources of motivation for work.  

Leisure and flexible working 

They argue that rises in living standards over the past 150 years or so in the richer economies have allowed us to spend less time working to support our desired lifestyles and raised our expectations as to what work should offer us.  

There is data which appears to support this assertion: official working hours per week are greatly reduced since the last century, attitude surveys show that in the richer countries we are prioritising leisure (the whole experience economy is built upon this prioritisation), and we are expecting much more from work than just pay.  

We want work to add value to our lives and we want to add social value through our work. We now see work as a source of social connectivity, and we expect it to be a vehicle for learning, development and progression. 

The data suggests that as the middle classes grow in emerging economies such as China and India, these trends are being repeated there too. I recall my own experience growing up in Sweden, where Swedish workers were identifying flexible working arrangements as their number one priority long before flexible working had appeared on the agenda in other countries. 

Cost of living 

There are some important areas for consideration though in this whole ‘changing motivation for work’ debate. Taking the UK, for example, there is persistent and increasing evidence of poverty in employment.  

It is clear that a number of workers, such as nurses, are having to access food banks to survive, or are struggling to pay their energy bills. There are yet others who are working two or even three jobs to make ends meet. These individuals do not have the luxury to prioritise leisure over earning and their focus is highly likely to be upon a job as a source of income and little more.  

This situation is likely to pull in more employees as the cost of living continues to rise sharply and wages fail to keep pace. It is important to recognise that in many advanced economies there is still a 2-speed labour market.  

On the one hand, there are those who have tenuous employment and could easily be displaced from their jobs by automation, outsourcing or other labour market competitors. It is highly unlikely that these motivation trends are embracing them and as stated, greater numbers of the workforce are likely to fall into this category given the increased inflation, living costs and automation.  

The cost of living continues to rise sharply and wages fail to keep pace.

Sought-after talent 

The other side of the labour market does however contain highly sought-after talent. They find job security and wage security not through any individual employer, but through their skills and learning.  

These individuals are able to focus on more than the ‘hygiene factors’ of pay, job security, a good work environment and good working conditions. They will seek out belonging, esteem and self-actualization in the work environment.  

They will prioritise the nature of the work itself, learning opportunities, progression, autonomy, recognition, growth and the flexibility to work when, where and how it suits them.   

Ironically, this talent may well work many hours over that of a standard week and this appears hard to square with the idea that they prioritise leisure time. However, this is offset by the idea of autonomy; the ability to integrate their work and personal lives in a way which works for them. The key is maximising the level of control they have over their lives to prioritise how they live their personal and working lives. 

Where and how then do employers fit into this motivation puzzle? 

Firstly, employers need to be aware of the human resource trends which are developing around them, and they need to consider the positioning of their organisation when it relates to talent attraction, engagement and retention. 

Secondly, if these motivation trends are judged relevant to them, then they need to fundamentally reassess whether their organisation and its approaches to motivation are still valid.  

There is evidence that for many organisations, their motivation efforts have historically largely been targeted at what behavioural scientist Frederick Hertzberg would call the ‘hygiene factors’, i.e. much of the reward and recognition offered is focused around salaries and other wage related benefits.  

These are of course important, as if they are not right, they will not enable the attraction and retention of talent and they will be dissatisfiers. However, the hygiene factors are just a small part of the motivation story. The true satisfiers or motivators are much more difficult to deliver as they rely on more diffuse organisational effort for example: 

  • Can the organisation deliver meaningful, challenging, stimulating work which will provide a sense of personal achievement? 
  • Will the leadership/ management style provide talent with enough responsibility, or will talent be subsumed by micromanagement and bureaucracy? 
  • Will there be real opportunities for growth and personal progression? 
  • Will employees be permitted to be authentic in the work environment? 
  • How much control will employees have over their own work/life integration? 

Writers such as Daniel Pink have observed that organisations have tended historically to focus upon ‘extrinsic motivation’, or in other words, the ‘rewards and penalties’ approach to motivating individuals.  

These approaches worked well where work was simple, following a clear process flow with easily identifiable goals, which could be met by channelling effort in the manner management required.  

The observation is that these approaches worked because they narrowed down the employee focus. However, this is counterproductive in the 21st century world of complex work, with no clear process flows, immense complexity and often little clear sight of goals. In this environment wide-field vision is required, not a narrowed focus. Wide-field vision can best be achieved through ‘intrinsic motivation’.  

This is the type which comes from within, but which organisations can enable by creating the right environmental factors, such as putting in place some of those factors described above.  

For many organisations, individual and collective motivation is the key to success. Should your organisation require support with the motivation challenge or indeed other areas of human resource thinking or practise, please contact one of our Forbury People HR partners via  

About this article

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About this article

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