Employee motivation is obviously a critical issue for organizations of any size. The financial benefits have been proven—including by Wharton professor Alex Edmunds , and for anyone who’s ever worked in an organization where employees are motivated and engaged, the day-to-day difference in employee performance and the overall atmosphere is clear. Motivating employees makes a difference.
But what works to motivate employees? Are there proven ideas on employee motivation that work across different types of organizations and employees? The obvious answer is money, right? Well, actually, no—on the whole, money isn’t the best way to motivate employees. Edmunds states, “Since key outputs, such as teamwork, building client relationships and idea generation, are difficult to measure, motivating workers by paying by the piece is less effective.”
Entrepreneur Magazine echoes this idea in a recent blog post on employee motivation , saying, “studies find this happiness [via a monetary motivation] is short-lived. Within six months, individuals have difficulty recalling that bonus and it does not seem to have the same impact it did within the first few weeks or months of receiving it.”
If it ain’t money, what is it that motivates employees? The Harvard Business Review points to four fundamental drives  for human nature—acquiring, bonding, comprehending, and defending. These are obviously broad categories, but researchers found that an organization’s ability to meet the four fundamental drives explains, on average, about 60% of employees’ variance on motivational indicators. Still, those are a bit esoteric, so here are three (clear and easy) ideas on how to motivate employees driven from what’s happening in the brain.
Your brain is divided into two hemispheres, one comprising traditionally left-brain thought (analytical, rational, structural, process-driven) and the other right-brain thought (social, empathic, intuitive, idea-driven). Your brain also has an abstract component (big picture, why-focused, innovative) and a concrete component (details, how-focused, practical). These elements are all conveyed via your behaviors and actions—how you express yourself, how you drive ideas and people, and how you accommodate others. So here are three ideas on how to motivate employees based on these three aspects of what’s happening in their heads.
- Motivate employees by understanding the differences in employee approaches and designing rewards to match. If you discover your employees tend towards right-brain thinking (look for how they respond to questions about how they’re feeling or what their families and friends are doing—if this excites them, motivate accordingly), motivations could include a company-wide event for families or flex-time to allow for different relationships to flourish. If they tend toward left-brain thinking (look for positive reactions to questions on checking things off the to-do list or by how much they want to explain the why of certain issues), motivate employees based on the ability to work on more complex problems or by results geared to completion of projects.
- Motivate employees by explaining the big picture and providing the rationale and process to achieve big-picture goals. This is imperative to reaching both the abstract and concrete perspectives. Employees want to know what the big picture is, what your vision is—because believing in the vision is critical, according to the Entrepreneur article. Equally important is the concrete perspective—clear expectations and a clear process for making it happen. When you’ve got these in place, employee motivation will be higher across the board.
- Motivate employees by soliciting input, providing feedback, and ensuring flexibility. By tapping into these three key areas of behavior, you’re tapping into how employees behave. Gaining input from employees is critical, as motivation is based on mutual trust and involvement. Additionally, praising employees for a job well done has been proven to be more of a motivator than money. Finally, ensuring flexibility really gets to providing an opportunity to succeed, since each employee’s motivation is founded on the notion that success is possible and achievable.
Really, what it comes down to in employee motivation is understanding employees, knowing what makes them tick, and providing a climate that advances both.