3 Steps to Moving Your People Toward Greatness

Huge carrot and businessman under blue sky
THE BIG IDEA: The old paradigm of employee motivation can actually be hurting your business’s performance. Social psychology offers fresh insights on what drives modern humans to perform at their best.


If there was a strategy that would simultaneously improve your personal effectiveness and organization growth, would you adopt it today?

How about if we told you it could make your life and the work of your employees a whole lot more enjoyable too?

Rethinking Employee Motivation

The primary form of motivation in the workplace has been the old carrot-and-stick approach: you work for us and we’ll pay you for your time.

Over the past century, money was the primary motivator in corporate America. In the past, money as a primary motivation worked because employee tasks were routine, unchallenging, and controlled.

Our current work environment is very different, characterized by complexity and rapid change.

In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Dan Pink provides substantial evidence that the carrot-and-stick approach is actually destructive to organizations in today’s dynamic workplace.

Focusing mainly on financial compensation as the primary employee motivator has been found to reduce lower performance, inhibit creativity, foster addiction, and promote unethical behavior in organizations.

Three Psychological Needs for Intrinsic Motivation

Money is an external factor. Study after study show that people improve their performance when they are motivated by something within themselves. Psychology calls this intrinsic motivation.

Self-determination theory suggests that there are three psychological needs that form of the basis for intrinsic motivation. Applied to your organization, they can improve employee health, wellbeing, and performance:

  1. Competence: allow employees to become better at something that matters to them.
  2. Autonomy: allow employees to be self-directed with control over key aspects of their work (which can include when they work, how they work, with whom they work, and exactly what they are working on).
  3. Relatedness: provide means for employees to contribute to a cause greater than themselves, to experience caring for others.

As a chief executive, you understand the importance of autonomy and the sense of freedom that comes from being the captain of one’s own ship.

Last week’s quote from PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi stuck with us: “If you want to improve the organization, you have to improve yourself and the organization gets pulled up with you … I cannot just expect the organization to improve if I don’t improve myself and lift the organization.”

Nooyi’s statement speaks to the motivation of competence and the drive to achieve greater mastery of one’s self. According to a survey of 267 C-level executives of Fortune 500 companies, chief executives invest an average of 30 minutes in personal development each day.

The Power of Purpose

Nooyi’s stated end goal is to “lift the organization.” This is the drive of relatedness, or what authors like Dan Pink and Tony Hsieh have called purpose. This universal need to connect and care for others doesn’t just motivate individuals—it translates to bottom-line profits too.

Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant ran an experiment with call center employees who were tasked with calling people to ask for donations.

He randomly separated them into three groups. Each group had the same conditions except for a five-minute story each group read before their shift.

The first group read stories from other call center agents about how their job helped teach them transferable sales skills (a personal benefit).

The second group read stories from university alumni who benefitted from the donations raised by the call center and how the scholarships helped them (a purpose that connected the agents with something greater than themselves).

The third group read stories that had nothing to do with personal gain or purpose (the control group).

Grant couldn’t believe the results of his study. He replicated it five more times to be sure: while the personal benefit group showed no change in their performance, the purpose group more than doubled their dollars raised.

The call center employees in the purpose group couldn’t identify what exactly was driving their behavior. They simply doubled their productivity!

Could helping others and making a difference in people’s lives be a secret factor in motivating people to higher performance? It certainly appears so.

How to Improve Employee Motivation

Here are three steps to improve employee motivation through purpose:

#1: Clearly define your business in the context of your customers: who are they as human beings? How are you committed to serving them and adding value to their lives?

#2: Communicate this customer-driven message throughout your organization. Everyone in your organization should know the purpose of the business so they may find their own ways (autonomy) of contributing to that purpose.

#3: Be consistent. Never stop “selling in” to your organization. Inspiring leaders always find fresh ways to reinforce their organization’s purpose through words, personal behavior, and corporate decisions.

Feeling motivated? Let’s get going …

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