Several years ago, I gave a speech at a conference full of some of the most respected and accomplished business leaders in America. At one point, I asked them what motivated these executives and CEOs to come to work in the morning, and they all said some version of the same thing. They said they were motivated by the work they were doing and the mission behind it. They felt inherently driven and energized and therefore were excited to come to work each day.

But when I asked them what they thought motivated their employees, these same leaders provided very different answers. According to them, the people who worked for them were motivated by completely different factors–things like money and promotions and the need to provide for their families. They were in it for the purpose, but their employees were in it for external rewards. 

The truth is, we’re all motivated by the same basic things, and once you understand this, you will be better positioned to ensure your employees are as motivated as they can be.

Hygiene Factors and Demotivation

When leaders think about motivating employees, they tend to focus on external factors like salary, perks, promotions, and other rewards whose values are easily measurable. But these things are what are known as “hygiene factors.” Like good hygiene, they’re things you pay a lot of attention to when they’re missing, but when they’re present, you barely notice them. 

If your coworker hasn’t showered today, you’ll probably notice his body odor, but if he has, you probably don’t even think about his hygiene habits. The same goes for money. If you’re not being paid enough to cover basic expenses or if you think you’re not being compensated fairly, you’ll probably be stressed out and highly demotivated. But once you reach a certain salary level, your motivation doesn’t tend to increase just because you get paid more. If you’ve been using money as the main motivator in your business, it’s time to rethink your approach.

At Gravity, we pay a $70,000 minimum living wage to all employees not because we think it motivates them, but because we don’t want them to be stressed out and demotivated by not making enough. We still offer raises, but we view them as recognition for good work rather than motivation for future work. We also don’t offer commissions or bonuses because we don’t want to inadvertently incentivize people to focus on increasing their paychecks at the expense of our mission to help independent businesses. Instead we focus on other factors that are more effective, even though they’re a lot more complicated to control.

What Really Motivates People

In his book Drive, Dan Pink argues that instead of focusing on extrinsic motivators like money, we should focus more on intrinsic motivators. People are intrinsically motivated when they are doing work they enjoy and that they think is valuable. In other words, they are motivated by the work or activity itself, rather than any external incentive associated with the work. 

At Gravity, we encourage our leadership to engage in a thought experiment to force them to focus on intrinsic motivation. We ask them to think about our employees as if they were volunteers and to consider what kind of organization we’d have to create to encourage people to show up to work every day even if they weren’t getting paid. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself, if you didn’t have to worry about money, would you still be excited to do the job you’re currently doing every day? 

As a business leader, it’s also important to ask yourself if the work your company is doing is inherently motivating to you. Do you find meaning in the work you’re doing? What larger purpose are you fulfilling? If you can’t answer these questions, it might be time to rethink why you’re in business in the first place. Once you’ve figured out your mission, make sure to articulate it to everyone you work with–and not just once but every day.

Pink identifies three things that contribute to intrinsic motivation, and I have identified a fourth:

  1. Autonomy: People feel motivated when they are empowered to make decisions and do their jobs in a way that works for them. 
  2. Mastery: People are motivated when they feel competent to perform the task at hand while still being challenged enough that they don’t get bored.
  3. Purpose. People are motivated when they feel that the work they’re doing has a purpose larger than themselves. 
  4. Social Connection: Human beings are social creatures, so we tend to be motivated when given the opportunity to help others or when we feel like part of a larger community.

At Gravity, we try to build each of these things into our culture, while reducing attention to extrinsic motivators, like salary. 

Capability and License: The Missing Factors that Influence Motivation

One of the downsides of thinking about how to influence motivation is that it can often sound like you’re trying to manipulate people into working harder for you without giving them anything in return. 

People are inherently motivated to work hard and do a good job. They want to find purpose and connection in their work, but they often lack the ability to do so because of factors outside their control. As an employer, focusing on making sure they have the resources and permission necessary to do their work well, while providing work that feels meaningful and honest, will go a long way in ensuring people can harness their own intrinsic motivations.

Capability: Someone can be motivated to fish, but if they don’t have a fishing pole, they won’t be able to achieve the desired result quickly and can become demotivated while trying to figure out how to solve the problem. Do your people have the tools they need to do their jobs? Are they adequately trained? Is something distracting them or limiting their ability to focus? Are they allowed to make mistakes and fail for the sake for learning? All of these things increase their capability, and when people feel capable, they will stay motivated.

License: License takes the concept of autonomy one step farther in that it means your people feel like they have a voice and that their efforts are essential to your work as an organization. Giving your people license, means they are allowed to share their expertise and opinions and try things they believe are worth doing. This might sound like a recipe for chaos, but it actually ensures that your people stay motivated because they feel like they can be themselves and occasionally make mistakes while contributing meaningfully to the organization.

The best thing you can do to keep your people motivated is to make sure they have capability and license. This, along with a strong mission and purpose and a foundation that allows them to not have to worry about money, will allow them to tap into their intrinsic motivations and will make your organization stronger, more resilient, and more creative.

Gravity CEO Dan Price writes frequently on American business. Follow him on social media @danpriceseattle.

This post was adapted from “CEO Corner: How to Motivate Employees,” part of the free Gravity Talks webinar program. For more information on past and upcoming webinars, visit www.gravitypayments.com/talks.

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