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What motivates people in the workplace?

September 3, 2021
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Workplace motivation

The psychology of motivation

Motivation stems from basic human needs of survival.  Despite being the most advanced creatures on the planet, we are still biological beings.  We are hard-wired to act in certain ways if our subconscious determines our survival needs depends on it.  Physiological needs such as food, water, warmth, and safety fall into this category.  The motivation to fulfil these become stronger the longer they are denied.  For example, the longer you go without food, the hungrier you become.

However, our advanced brains are also more likely to act if our psychological wellbeing is not being satisfied.  Psychological needs include a sense of belonging, fitting in, love, and esteem.  Once a deficit need has been satisfied, our motivation is re-directed towards meeting the next set of needs not yet met.

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist, identified this pattern of behaviour and in 1943 first proposed this in a paper "A Theory of Human Motivation". It has become known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  As with all theory, there are critics.  But it remains a widely used leadership tool as it can explain common human nature recognisable in ourselves and others.

From observations, Maslow theorised that once psychological and basic needs were met our motivation for these things reduced.  But once our focus turned to personal growth and self-actualisation, success or creativity become the motivating force.  Ongoing growth then does not stem from a lack of something, but a desire to grow as a person, meaning motivation grows with the more we achieve.  Our success breeds desire for more success.


So how does this fit in a modern workplace?

Sadly, life events can destabilise our once psychological and basic needs.  These are events that are often outside of our control.  Every person is capable of moving up the hierarchy, but experiences such as job loss, divorce, family bereavement, financial problems, or even threat of a restructure can cause someone to fluctuate between these levels.  As we all know, change is a constant in life.  Rarely will someone move consistently up through the hierarchy.  Typically, we all fluctuate as “life happens” to us all.

As a leader this becomes critical to understand in a team context.  How we act, and interact, in terms of our own motivations influences others.  A misplaced word from a senior manager can cause an individual, who may have low self-security, to go into a metaphorical tailspin.  For example, the mere mention of possible restructure can motivate valuable staff to look for another job.  All because of a perceived loss of security.

In other words, what is motivating us at a certain time drives our behaviour, which in turn can impact the needs of others.  Sometimes this may not even be immediately self-recognisable.  During times of change in our own lives, it is important to reflect on our own actions and interactions. Ask for help from a mentor, peer, or coach, and take care of ourselves.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the Workplace

What are some barriers to maintaining self-actualisation?

Those “life happens” moments also occur with teams. Team changes that occur from time to time such as a long-term staff member suddenly leaving.  Likewise, something as big as a company merger, or as small as the recruitment of a new team member can have a direct impact on others.  These then cause a change in behaviour and motivations.  Such events that trigger a change in team dynamics should be watched to ensure individuals needs are being met.

Some examples of what to watch out for are shown below:

Trigger Motivational impact Possible impacts
Threat of redundancy Safety needs Search for new job

Reduced of productivity

Negative feelings about company/boss.

Perception of being underpaid Esteem needs
Paid less than peers Esteem needs
Financial hardship Physiological needs Taking on extra paid duties

Becoming overworked/tired

Behaving out of character

Work relationship issue Belonging and love Avoiding work/individuals

Reduced of productivity

Unwillingness to take on other duties

Increase in work absences/sick leave

Loss of confidence

Workplace bullying Safety needs
Workplace accident Safety needs
Change in team dynamics Belonging and love Change in productivity

Team members may “step-up” or choose to leave.

Perception of being micro-managed Esteem needs Loses pride in work

Feelings of underappreciation or frustration.

Reduced productivity.

Demotion or failing to secure promotion Esteem needs
Reduction in staff duties Esteem needs
New job/career opportunity Self-actualisation Willingness to take on other duties or training.

Ability to make a difference by creating something new at work.

Feeling of self-worth.

Increase confidence.

What behaviours lead to self-actualisation?

While everyone achieves self-actualisation in their own unique way, they tend to share certain characteristics.

Here are a few traits: -

  1.  Takes on self-responsibility and purpose and works hard.
  2.  Is inquisitive like a child, fully absorbed and focused in the present.
  3.  Uses their gut feeling when assessing experiences.
  4.  Are honest, a mature self-actualising adult never plays emotional games with others.
  5.  They aren’t afraid to try new things, just because something is always done a certain way does not mean there aren’t different, possibly even better ways.
  6.  Self-reflection and courage, especially when identifying why their own defences are raised.
  7.  Acceptance of self and others for what and who they are.
  8.  Are prepared to consider unpopular views, even when these don’t align with others.

Do you have examples or feedback?

If you have your own examples of triggers and motivational impacts, or have any questions on the topics covered, please share in the comments below.