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Why we Work

Evolving motivational triggers in an uncertain world

What Motivates People

From Maslow’s Theory of motivation to our days, pages and pages about human motivation have been written. Behavioral scientists, psychologists, and business people, have searched to understand what makes people do what they do.

Organizations are constantly looking at different ways by which they can “motivate” employees, improve workforce morale and create better work environments.

The fact is that motivation is not a small topic, many times the results of individuals and teams, relate to their motivation.

Any individual can produce different results, depending on the degree of motivation he has when performing a task, project or activity.

I believe that organizations cannot motivate their employees; instead, they can create a work environment where individual motivation flourishes.

All individuals have different motivational factors; but, if they find the right environment they will create their own self-motivation.

Some organizations apply “motivational plans” to boost employee morale. Many times HR professionals are asked; “to motivate” people or create programs that will do so. Companies that implement this type of programs usually get meager results within the short term.  During the long term these superficial actions have a negative effect, as people’s apathy and cynicism grows.

Many times managers believe that if they have a problem with their employees’ morale, the company can create a “magic” morale boosting campaign that will solve all the problems.

On the other hand organizations that really care about employee motivation have ways of collecting data about the employee engagement and work environment, and take actions to improve it.

Motivational Triggers

Key in this analysis is that an individual’s motivation is the result to which his motivational drivers are met.

I call these drivers the motivational triggers.

Most  people are motivated by  a series of triggers, and  each individual has a different set of triggers that also have relative importance to each other.

When people are asked what motivate them to work, we generally receive answers, such as:

  • The organization for which they work.

  • The work environment.

  • The company “brand”

  • Their boss.

  • Money.

  • The achievements they can produce when they play a specific role.

  • Recognition.

  • The power that a position enables them with.

  • Status.

  • Their peers, team and co-workers.

  • The work schedule.

A simple way to represent these is by means of a polynomial, whereby we add the elements that motivate an individual.

Let‘s take Anne as an example:

Anne’s motivation = Salary + The company “Brand”+ Power + Work Schedule + Work Atmosphere + Co-Workers.

Each Trigger also bears a different weight in Anne’s motivation formula:

Anne’s motivation is equal to:  Salary (20%)+ The company “brand”+ (50%) + Power (10%) + Work Schedule  (10%) + Work atmosphere (5%) + Co-Workers (5%).

In Anne’s case, her biggest motivation to work comes from the Company Brand, followed by salary, power, work schedule, work atmosphere and co-workers.

Key insight #1: We all have different weighting for motivational triggers

Constant Change

Changes in motivation triggers can happen due to a variety of circumstances:  changes in our personal life, new or different needs, and changes in career expectations and so on.

In Anne’s case, being a recent college graduate that is taking her first steps in a corporation, The Company Brand is the primary source of motivation. The company is well-regarded corporations know for grooming and developing talent early on their careers.

The motivation triggers might change as she wants to apply for a loan to buy a house, then salary can become a more relevant motivating trigger.

Anne’s motivation:  Salary (40%) + The company “brand”+ (30%) + Power (10%) + Work Schedule (10%) + Work atmosphere (5%) + Co-Workers (5%).

If Anne gets married and has kids, work schedule might become a key factor in determining her motivation to work in a specific position, as she wants to spend more time with her kids.

Anne’s motivation:  Salary (30%) + The company “brand”+ (20%) + Power (10%) + Work Schedule (40%) + Work atmosphere (5%) + Co-Workers (5%).

The polynomial theory gives us a vision as to how motivational triggers interact and vary, depending on  the person we are analyzing and  the timing when the analysis is being made.

Key insight # 2: Motivational triggers change over time

Is there a ”Mother of all triggers “or a “Mega Trigger” ?

When I facilitate session on motivational triggers I ask participants to assign points to each trigger to go through the theory, after a couple of exercises I ask them if there is a Mega trigger, and how much points they will assign to it.

Always “The Boss” comes up as the Mega Trigger.

I ask participants to describe a great boss, and usually they explain how this great boss helped in their development, coached them to get better, set the right direction and how that had expanded their motivation in that particular role.

On the other had when I ask them to describe the experience of a horrible boss, in most cases people ended up leaving the organization due to a bad boss.

So after all the conclusion is that the boss is a Multiplier of the motivational triggers.

If you have an ok boss, your experience is the result of the motivational triggers

If you have a great boss your motivation is multiplied (by 2, 3 or so) and if you have a horrible boss, the motivation is cero.

Anne’s motivation = 0 : Bad Boss  0 x [Salary (30%) + The company “brand”+ (20%) + Power (10%) + Work Schedule (40%) + Work atmosphere (5%) + Co-Workers (5%)]

Anne’s motivation doubles :Great Boss  2 x [Salary (30%) + The company “brand”+ (20%) + Power (10%) + Work Schedule (40%) + Work atmosphere (5%) + Co-Workers (5%)]

In my personal career I was once offered my “dream job”, it was in a new continent, with multy contry responsibility, great challenges to address, access to great tools…. All seemed perfect.

Then once I arrived I had a horrible boss and my experience was the worst.

Key insight # 3: The Boss is the Mega trigger, so be a great boss and try to work or a good one

The environment

The financial crisis of 2008 added a new dimension to the theory. In moments of great uncertainty and economic downturn we go back to basics… to the Maslow fundamentals… we what a job. So Job security comes high on the list.


Anne’s motivation: Great Boss  2 x [Job Security (70%) +Salary (5%) + The company “brand”+ (5%) + Power (5%) + Work Schedule (5%) + Work atmosphere (5%) + Co-Workers (5%)]

So it’s extremely important to invest in what will give employees the highest motivation in times of crisis, sometimes we cannot offer job security, because times are thought, but we can certainly provide open and candid communication.

Key insight # 4: The motivational factors changes with the macro environment

So, What Do We Use It For?

Understanding people's motivations is a key competency to being an effective leader, manager or team member.

If we understand the motivation triggers, it will be easier to create a work atmosphere where motivation flourishes. There is not a unique formula as to how to create this atmosphere. Nevertheless, if we understand the motivation triggers, we will be more likely to take actions that create employees’ satisfaction.

If we do not understand this, we can take actions that are neutral or even counterproductive.  For example, if an employee is motivated by work related achievements and we give him a salary increase; probably this will have little effect on his motivation. On the other hand, if we assign him to a relevant project, this will probably have a positive effect on his behavior.

As organizations cannot magically motivate employees, it is the role of leaders, managers and team leaders to continuously monitor the motivational triggers of their employees. This continuous exercise will allow them to take the right choices in assigning time money and effort to improve individual motivation.

Understanding the dynamics of how individual motivation works can make the difference between a successful leader and one that is not.

Miguel Premoli

March 2015

**This is a personal weblog post. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer.**

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