What Motivates Your People?

What motivates your people to come to work, and more importantly to stay engaged and operate at their peak performance?

It’s a question that has been pondered long and hard, with heavyweights such as Maslow publishing his Hierarchy of Needs way back in the 1950’s.

But is it that simple? And what can we do in organisations to create a workplace that encourages high levels of engagement?

I was recently sharing a coffee (well an avocado, berry and chia smoothie, but that’s another story) with Robyn Moyle from the H Factor. She was telling me how her business concept was borne out of the 2011 Queensland floods. She saw the harrowing tales of devastation on the TV, but it wasn’t this that made tears run down her face. What she saw was the indomitable and generous human spirit at work. 80,000 residents turned out the day after the storm to help ordinary people clean up their houses and streets. It wasn’t pleasant work to say the least – tons of mud mixed with sewage. It wasn’t even easy to get to the centre of the action – roads were blocked and public transport had ground to a halt. But somehow this “muddy army” turned up to do an extraordinary thing – to help their fellow human beings get back to normality.

Robyn said it got her thinking about what was motivating these people. And if we could only bottle it, how it could transform the world of work.

Her analysis was that four factors were at play:

  • Autonomy
  • Community
  • Connection
  • Purpose

Autonomy because no one was telling them they needed to turn up. In fact the Lord Mayor of the city asked for volunteers, but just told them to bring gumboots buckets. All the organisation on the day was done to the volunteers.

Community was a powerful driver – volunteers from the neighbouring communities and even interstate were motivated to do what they could to get this community back on its feet as soon as possible.

Connection – both with the community being helped and fellow volunteers. Later that week there was powerful footage of residents feeling overwhelmed by the support they had received from their community. I wouldn’t mind betting that everyone that took part that day felt a deep emotional connection with what was being achieved, and this will have stayed with them to this day.

Purpose. Often described as the “why” and made famous by Simon Sinek in his fantastic TED talk (you can watch it below if you haven’t already seen it).

In the Brisbane floods the purpose was crystal clear (even if the Brisbane River wasn’t). To return the community back to normal, one house, one street, one park at a time.

So, how can we take the lessons from a disaster such as the Brisbane floods and use them in organisations on an everyday basis?

I often work with clients who want to have a more engaged and better performing team. My definition of employee engagement looks like this:

Dimensions of employee engagement High intent to stay Low intent to stay
High discretionary effort True Believers Achievers
Low discretionary effort Stayers Underminers

True Believers. The “True Believers” are people who will put in extra effort and intend to stay. Sometimes these people have been with you since the start, and will feel more like “family” than employees. Nurture these people if you have them in your organisation, as it is likely your business won’t flourish without them. Keeping these people engaged may involve profit sharing or equity release schemes.

Achievers. These people put in the discretionary effort, but may not intend to stay long. It is positive to have some “Achievers” in your business. They may not intend to stay with you for long, but they will put in extra effort whilst they are with you, often so they can add to their resume. Typical of this group is the “Gen Y” born between 1977 and 1994.

Stayers. These employees intend to stay for the long haul, but they won’t necessarily put in discretionary effort. It is also positive to have some “Stayers” in your business. These are often staff who aren’t particularly interested in progressing their career, and they won’t set the world on fire, but they hold a wealth of knowledge and are often the reliable staff that keep your customers loyal. Overlook them at your peril

Underminers. Finally the “Underminers” are those who don’t put in any extra effort, and don’t intend to stay. However, whilst they are still working with you, they will go out of their way to undermine and sabotage what you want to achieve. You will often find these people by the water cooler, happily running you and your company down to anyone who will listen. These people are dangerous in your organisation and you need to quickly turn them round or manage them out.

You can probably identify where most of your staff currently sit on this matrix. Over time, individual employees may change from being positively engaged to being negative and turned off. Of course it works the other way too. Our goal is to create the environment which enables employees to be engaged.


Because we have all experienced the frustration of going to a restaurant where the staff seem disengaged and couldn’t care less. We have also all experienced times where an employee puts in the extra effort and seems to really care about solving our issues. Which one are we likely to return to and recommend to our friends and family?

The disability service is facing a huge shake up at the moment, with the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The principle behind the scheme is choice. Choice for the individual and their family to decide what services they need, and how they want to achieve fulfilment in their lives. This is a complete turnaround from the old model of service providers offering services, and the individual finding the best fit with their needs.

Will employee engagement make a difference in the individual’s choice. You bet! Individuals and their families will be drawn to those organisations that have understood and embraced the change, and whose employees clearly demonstrate the new values. Of course employee engagement isn’t the only factor – employees will need to have training on the new system and internal processes, accountabilities and responsibilities will need to be clear, and jobs may be reconfigured to meet the new environment.

But at its core, the success of any change initiative is based on whether employees are behind it or not.

So… how do we increase and maintain high levels of employee engagement?

I was reading another article by The Culture Works. They have surveyed 850,000 people across the globe to find out what motivates them. I wish I could say they found there was one or possibly two factors that are universal motivators. Then we could all work on improving these.

Sadly this isn’t the case. They have identified 23 factors that motivate people:

Autonomy Friendship Problem solving
Challenge Fun Purpose
Creativity Making an impact Recognition
Developing others Learning Service
Empathy Money Social responsibility
Excelling Ownership Teamwork
Excitement Pressure Variety
Family Prestige

Some of the factors do stand out:

68% by Making an Impact

31% are motivated by Purpose

30% by Autonomy

22% by Teamwork

Although money isn’t the key driver for the majority of people (who knew?). But for 8% of people it is their key motivation.

Age and where you are in your career can influence your motivation. For Gen Y or millenials 62% are motivated by Learning, and 51% by Family (making loved one’s proud and having a good work/life balance).

So it appears there isn’t one size fits all. Although some factors as the demographics of your workforce, and the industry you are in will have an influence, the bottom line is our personal motivation is like our fingerprint – a unique combination of the 23 factors. The only answer is to have a meaningful dialogue with employees to help them, and you, understand what motivates them.

You can read more here.

The study has also done a correlation between happiness and motivating factors. They found that people who rated themselves as happy most of the time had these motivators:

Developing Others/Teamwork/Excelling/Challenge/Pressure/Problem solving

So it appears focussing on others and pushing yourselves can be the key to happiness.

A simple example which illustrates this is the work done by Adam Grant. He realised that employees in a hospital are motivated to help the vulnerable and needy. He tested this out by putting different signs up above soap dispensers and hand sanitizers.

The sign that read “Hand hygiene protects you from catching disease” had not much effect on changing behaviour. Most of us sub-consciously have a value of invulnerability…we don’t believe it will happen to us.

But, when he put up signs that read “Hand hygiene protects Patients from catching disease” they saw a 33% increase in the amount of hand washing.

So the message here is clear – if you want to influence behaviour it needs to be about someone else not about the individual, tapping into our need for connection and purpose.

Patients’ Health Motivates Workers To Wash Their Hands

So, how do we distill what we know about employee motivation and engagement into some practical steps that can be applied in organisations?

  1. Find out about your workforce. Their demographic, your industry, and your purpose
  2. Develop systems that address the top motivators and engagers in your workforce
  3. Find ways to connect with your people on an individual level

If you would like to discuss this further and find ways of harnessing the potential of your workforce, I would love to hear from you.

Jayne Griffiths


0420 507008