What Really Motivates Workers?

Amabile continues in her quest to challenge conventional wisdom around
creativity and motivation.  Although I’m certain that’s not her
ambition, her research often rejects the shibboleths of creativity and
motivation, so much that if her fingerprint is on the research, I’ll
quickly pick it up. 

For example, most execs believe that people come up with their best
work when time is tight.  Push them and they’ll perform better. 
Amabile found that that’s not at all the case.  Indeed, when you’re
under the gun time-wise, you’ll think far less creatively.

In yesterday’s post on ten breakthrough ideas, I noted that for my
business in development and performance improvement, this was the most

As the Harvard Business Review summary indicates, Amabile and
colleagues completed research over several years and with more than 600
managers.  The study tracked the day-to-day activities, emotions, and
motivational levels of workers in different settings.  Amazingly, the
research showed that the top motivator of performance is what the execs
considered to be least significant. 

Executives thought that recognition for good work was the number one
motivating factor.  The research showed that the real issue of
motivation is progress.   In other words, when knowledge
workers have the sense that they’re making headway in their job, or
that they’re getting the support necessary for overcoming obstacles,
then their drive to succeed is at is most meaningful.

But, when employees feel that they are spinning their wheels or
having to deal with roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their
moods and motives are at the lowest.

The Breakthrough

The good news about this research finding is that the key to
motivation turns out to be under the control of the manager.  It
doesn’t depend on elaborate incentive systems.  You don’t have to spend
time trying to figure out what’s really inside your employee’s black
box of a brain. 

Here are Amabile’s recommendations:

  • Take care to clarify goals.
  • Ensure that people’s efforts are properly supported.
  • Keep from exerting time pressure so intense that minor glitches become crises.

The research does reveal that recognition motivates.  So celebrate progress, even incremental progresss.

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