What Motivates Your People

Twenty years ago, most leaders might have answered that question with a single word – money. They’d have been wrong… dozens of surveys have shown that compensation is no higher than 4th or 5th on the list of what motivates us at work. Rather, things like recognition, challenging and interesting work, and a compelling corporate mission have been proven to be more important than pay in motivating workers. Now a new study might be shining additional light on the motivation story.

Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard, has just completed a multiyear study tracking the day-to-day activities, emotions, and motivation levels of hundreds of knowledge workers in a wide variety of settings, and has found a new candidate for the top motivator – progress. Apparently, making progress in one’s work – even small wins that move the ball forward – is more frequently associated with positive emotions and high motivation than any other workday event. On days when workers felt they were making headway in their jobs, they were happy and motivated; on days when they felt they were spinning their wheels, their moods and motivation were at their lowest. Amabile feels this is pretty good news for managers and leaders, given that we may largely control events that allow for (or inhibit) progress. We can remove barriers or provide important resources that can help people move forward.

I think this is pretty good advice (and altogether consistent with the behavior of successful leaders). If we want to keep our team motivated and full of positive energy, we have to keep them moving toward meaningful goals that they can realistically achieve. We have to set clear objectives, recognize small wins, roll up our sleeves to pitch in where appropriate, and create an environment of teamwork. Turns out people get a big emotional lift from making progress in their work – which makes a lot of intuitive sense. The lesson for leaders is that we have to do whatever we can to help them make that progress happen, each and every day.