What really motivates adults?

We know what organisations think motivates them. But the research says money isn't an effective motivator.

By the 1960s researchers were showing that once you are paying employees enough, any additional dollars won't add much motivation. Money is a particularly ineffective motivator for people whose jobs involve complex analytical, social or creative skills.

But the news is good. Well-respected research reveals three motivators that cost nothing, are simple to use and provide us with a valuable checklist to keep our employees and trainees engaged.

1. Relatedness

The need to feel that we belong. Feeling that we have regular contact with people who care about us.

2. Autonomy

The need to be independent. Feeling that we have choices and control over our own actions. Workers with autonomy report more satisfaction with their jobs, fewer sick days and better physical and mental health.

3. Competence

The need to be effective. Feeling that we are capable.

Self-determination theory

Our three universal motivators are from Richard Ryan and Ed Deci's Self-determination theory. Their three motivational needs are well-supported by many studies.

Ryan and Deci (University of Rochester) state that the three motivators motivate everyone, regardless of culture. The effects are interrelated. Use one motivator and you'll probably be activating at least another.

How can we put the motivators into action?

1. The need for relatedness

Make working and learning social events. Find ways to help your team enjoy working together. Provide opportunities to socialise in breaks. Do you need a social club?

Even if you are providing individual coaching or mentoring, your relationship is a useful part of the motivation. Clearly, making a special effort to be supportive will be more effective than treating each encounter like an examination or a briefing. 

Consider asking two or more people to share a project.

Be approachable and available.

2. The need for autonomy

Hire people you trust and trust them.

Lay off the micro-management - telling them how to do the work, making decisions for them, constantly checking on their commitment and progress.

Allow them to make decisions on behalf of clients or customers (You might need to provide training and a limited budget.)

Make them responsible for a clearly-defined role. Our staff have 'themes' written into their employment agreements. One is 'manager of efficiency', another 'the voice of Skillset'.

3. The need to feel competent

Find ways to develop their skills and recognise their achievements. Consult them genuinely and regularly.

Younger people expect to be developing their skills and not having the opportunity to learn is a major cause of staff turnover.

Help them develop a learning plan and mentor them through it. Give them challenging assignments and recognise their progress an achievements.

What about self-esteem?

Ryan and Deci don't think much of self-esteem as a motivator - and they are not alone. Several researchers strongly oppose focusing on self-esteem where it involves praising people for who they are rather than what they have done. So, praising or recognising talent or intelligence is counterproductive. Praising employees for their effort, determination and strategies encourages a growth mindset which makes them more resilient when they encounter setbacks.

Isn't it convenient that there are only three universal motivators to remember and that they cost little or nothing to put into action?

I have found it helpful to have them at the forefront of my mind and to be constantly looking for appropriate ways to use them. It's the focus that counts.

Sources include...

Paul P. Baard, Edward L. Deci, Richard M.Ryan, 'Intrinsic Need Satisfaction: A Motivational Basis of Performance and Well-Being in Two Work Settings, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2004,34

Richard M Ryan, Kirk Warren Brown, Why We Don't Need Self-Esteem: On Fundamental Needs, Contingent Love and Mindfulness, Psychological Inquiry 2003, Vol 14, No. 1, 27-82

K.M.Sheldon,A.J.Elliot,Y.Kim,T.Kasser, 'What is satisfying about satisfying events?" Testing 10 candidate psychological needs', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 2001, vol. 80, no. 2, pp 325-339