There have been many studies showing that money is not a good motivator, even though it is usually at the top of the performance-related schemes in organisations.  So, if money doesn’t work, what does?  From the research, praise and recommendation from their immediate manager, recognition, personal satisfaction, career growth and a challenging role seem to come up consistently.

From experience, I understand the difficulties that organisations are facing with budget cuts, lack of ability to provide good bonuses/pay increases and other reward incentives.  It can seem from our team members that all they are interested in is their salary, bonus and promotions, and it’s difficult to find reasons to explain why the organisation cannot provide what you would like to give them.  At the same time you are working hard behind the scenes to justify and provide written evidence for increases to senior management, which can feel demoralising in itself.

However, given the research, when pushed to think beyond the instinct of talking about money, our team members are very specific about what makes a difference to them.

Studies show there to be a number of fundamental human needs which come into play when motivating people, so understanding how you as a leader can impact on these is very important.  If we encourage these human needs, then the individual automatically feels rewarded.  However, if something happens to discourage it (whether real or perceived), then the individual feels threatened, like a mental “pain”.  These are natural reward/pain responses in our neurology, with a reward response being more cerebral and a threat response triggering fight or flight.  If we feel rewarded, we feel empowered, creative and innovative.  But if we feel threatened, our working memory is inhibited, we take less risks and are unable to quickly respond to new challenges (which is why we often find ourselves saying things after an event like “why didn’t I think of saying that when …. my boss was having a go at me?”!!)

I’ve included below some of these fundamental human needs and given general examples of the reward or threat for each.   If you can take some time out to vividly recall how you personally felt in each of the circumstances, it may really help you to appreciate your impact on others in similar situations.

Significance:  People want to feel that they have done a good job and that their status has increased (whether that’s with a promotion, or small incremental improvements).  It gives a feeling of more control and more attention from others.  You can often see the rivalry with regard to significance during meetings with one-upmanship at play!

  • Reward:  when someone helps you notice how well you’ve done or what’s good about your abilities
  • Threat: in an important meeting someone tells you in front of everyone that your ideas are wrong

Certainty:  Humans are interested in predicting the future (using memories, patterns and new data to work out what might happen next), which is why strategy planning and forecasting is so prevalent.  Uncertainty, where parts of the plan are missing, feels uncomfortable.

  • Reward:  at the beginning of a meeting, the leader explains what will be covered, what will be expected of you and the duration.
  • Threat:  you’re expected to complete a project without any clear direction of your role or expectations as to the outcome.

Variation:  People want to feel that they are challenged and have some variety in their day, although the degree depends on the individual.  Boredom is not motivational!  Finding ways to learn new skills, teach new skills, take on new assignments and tasks all help to keep a job from becoming stale.

  • Reward:  you’re asked to come up with an idea to improve the process you are involved in
  • Threat:  you’re told to get on with your job the way it is as “that’s the way it’s always been done”

Connection:  People want to feel connected to others, relating to them in some way, or “on the same wavelength”.  You feel at ease with someone that you can relate to, and on edge with others who you think are very different to you (eg in values, status etc).

  • Reward: when you feel that you belong in a group or cohesive team, and are given time to network.
  • Threat:  you’re first meeting with someone who can have a major impact on your career, or you’ve got to tell about an error made

Autonomy:  Nearly a half of employees in highly engaged organisations believe in “greater autonomy”.  People want to be able to feel like they can make their own choices.  A great way to build confidence is to give your team members more autonomy to make decisions by delegating tasks and responsibility, pushing them towards challenging but achievable goals.

  • Reward:  the first time someone senior asked you to take responsibility for a piece of high profile work
  • Threat:  you’re “told” to do a task you are not comfortable or don’t agree with.

Fairness:  (more on this in separate blog)  Nobody wants to feel that they’re being taken advantage of; they want to feel that a level of justice and trust is apparent.

  • Reward:  in a discussion the other person has taken into consideration and understood your opinion and you’ve come to a compromise that works for both of you.
  • Threat:  someone changes the goalposts after previously agreed or you’ve completed the task.

Each individual will have different motivational needs, or stronger preference for some than others.  Some other areas which are motivational include: competence, trust, making a difference, ethics, fun, learning.

When you’re leading teams, it will help to actively look out for the potential for activating a threat response to someone’s basic human needs, which in turn will help improve the effective communication skills that increase the reward response instead.  If we want creative, innovative and productive teams, then our responsibility is to use our leadership skills and understanding to help motivate, support and encourage our valuable team members.

Have you got some good examples of when you have felt threatened and rewarded?

To find out how executive coaching could help you develop your leadership and communication skills, click HERE.  Alternatively, you can subscribe to the Assiem newsletter where you can also get your free guide to Achieving Employee Motivation with No Budget.





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