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Motivation in the workplace

How motivated are you, and those that work for you or with you?

A committed workforce is essential to the achievement of organizational goals. Individuals must be motivated in order to succeed. As job performance is the product of ability and motivation, it follows  that if an individual’s motivation is low job performance will inevitability suffer regardless of the individuals ability and experience.

In seeking to enhance motivational levels in the workplace the following need to be considered :

1. Current motivation levels

Any attempt to improve workplace motivation must begin with a realistic assessment of current motivational levels. Without this assessment and insights into underlying issues initiatives to enhance motivation will be wide of the mark and may make a bad situation worse. For example, if only symptoms of an underlying problem are addressed then initiatives to enhance motivation will be seen as a cynical gesture by management to improve productivity.

In order to determine the extent to which there is a problem with motivation it is useful to look at possible pointers to motivation levels – absenteeism levels/trends, performance ratings, staff turnover, staff attitude surveys, progress at delivering on change initiatives. More qualitative research is required to get insights into causes of motivational issues and possible solutions e.g. interviews with different employee groups and management at different levels of seniority, possibly using external facilitators.

Be careful about generalizing – motivation levels can vary by individual, employee category, business area, seniority, age profile etc.

Be aware as well of a tendency towards wishful thinking in assessing motivation levels. For example, employees may mask low motivational levels by  ‘playing the game’, saying what is expected in order to be perceived as committed, out of fear for the consequences for their career/job security of openly discussing their lack of motivation.  Low staff turnover may not necessarily be a positive, rather indicative of the lack of alternative opportunities, in a difficult job market.

2. Vision for future

Motivation levels will be strongly influenced by the extent to which top management have communicated an inspiring vision, supported by a credible plan for its achievement, in order to energize the workforce. It is not possible to achieve and sustain the highest levels of motivation, without a vision for the future around which employees can rally, with a sense of common purpose.

3. Personal drivers

Any initiative to improve motivation must appeal to personal needs and drivers. At the most basic level we need some level of job security, minimum level of remuneration in order to support ourselves and our families. After that we have a need for involvement, social interaction and to be valued and appreciated for our contribution. Finally and ideally our jobs should allow us to express who we are, so that the highest level of commitment flows naturally from us as it is inherently satisfying.

If there are motivational challenges it is important to address them in the first instance at the level at which the issue arises. If there is an issue with job security then this is the first issue that needs to be resolved. After that creating a workplace environment where there is a sense of belonging and a clear sense of common purpose in important. In order to give effect to all of this there needs to be clarity in terms of roles/accountabilities supported by challenging and inspiring personal and team objectives.

In terms of motivation the highest level of discretionary effort will be given by those who see their jobs as giving them the opportunity for self actualization, for expressing their creative powers.

A formal career path framework is critical to any plan to establish, enhance and sustain motivation levels, especially in large organizations.


  • Staff need assurance that effort will be rewarded
  • Provides stability and certainty to employees and a route to advancement
  • Absence of a credible career path is a major factor behind high staff turnover levels
  • Needed to retain the best and most ambitious employees
  • High turnover levels are demotivating and unsettling for those remaining

Of course, from an organizational perspective it is expensive and time-consuming to replace those that leave.

An increasingly important personal driver is the opportunity that a particular job role can provide to enhance employees expertise in their chosen disciplines. Behind this is the reality that there are no more  ‘jobs for life’ and that skills need to be transportable from one employer to another. So career frameworks are not just about meeting salary expectations but about ensuring that employees are given the opportunities to develop and enhance their skill sets and experience.

4. Transformational Change scenarios

If an organization has to make tough decisions to deal with significant challenges this will inevitable result in changes in the  psychological contract between the employee and the organization. This will especially be the case if the change is imposed from the top, with minimal consultation, as is often the case. Imposed changes to employment levels/redundancies, remuneration packages, pensions, security of employment, working arrangements and career prospects, however necessary, will impact negatively on trust between employee and management and the willingness of employees to go the extra mile for the organization in terms of discretionary effort and creativity. However, a committed workforce is critical to any recovery/transformation agenda

So having delivered the tough medicine ( preferably all at once or within a short timeframe) there will be a need to reengage with staff, switching emphasis from top down to bottom up led change. This empowerment will be an important element in the restoration of trust and commitment but must be supported by a clear vision for the future ( see 2 above). The end result will be a new psychological contract between employer and employee, which appeals to personal drivers ( see 3 above). In order to deliver this there will need to be an effective engagement strategy, based on open, honest and transparent communications by all concerned.

The focus of the above is on what organisations need to do to address motivational challenges. However, we are all ultimately responsible for our own motivation and need to determine what we need to do as individuals to feel motivated at work. This can involve standing back, possibly with the support of a coach, and seeing what changes we need to make to ensure that work is satisfying and rewarding (in the widest sense).

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