The elusive art of maximizing a company’s employee motivation

If you’re a business owner, executive or anyone with direct reports, you’ve undoubtedly wondered how you can get the most out of your team members.

I’ll save you the dozens of hours of reading and the thousands of dollars associated with their purchase with this summary: you can’t motivate anyone.

Decades of behavioural science have repeatedly proven that for most 21st-century jobs – ones that require creative problem solving and that are non-repetitive – external motivators (things like bonuses or extra vacation days) don’t create engagement and certainly don’t motivate. And when, according to Gallup, approximately $3,400 of every $10,000 in salary (per employee) is lost to disengagement in 70% of North American companies, not understanding the true ingredients to motivation is a very costly problem.

Intrinsic motivation

After employees are paid a market wage for their services, an extra dollar in salary won’t entice them to work any harder (at least those with non-repetitive, problem-solving jobs). In fact, no external motivators will. Instead, they must rely on intrinsic motivators.  Your job as a manager, in turn, is to provide the ingredients – all six and a half of them –  for this intrinsic motivation to flourish.

Shared purpose: a shared understanding of why

Why does your organization exist? What value does it bring to the world? And how can members of your organization lend their unique skills to this shared common purpose? Having these statements clearly articulated (and subsequently lived) will drive intrinsic motivation and has ripple effects on everything from a company’s branding to employee recruitment and retention and, ultimately, profit.

Emotionally intelligent leadership: the art of persuasion and influence

Emotional intelligence, the second pillar of an intrinsically motivated workplace, is the ability to be aware of, in control of and expressive of one’s emotions. It is also the ability to respond to interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most crucial aspects of human interactions, and perhaps one of the least practised in the workplace. Knowing how to adjust and respond to the needs of those around us is paramount to all human exchanges, not least in the workplace.

Healthy conflict: the source of innovation

Conflict is a part of life, both in and out of the office. Most people, however, view conflict one of two ways: as either something to be avoided at all costs or an all-or-nothing, winner-take-all battle. Conflict, however, does not have to be a four-letter word, and when done right, conflict can become a powerful source of innovation and creativity. 

Transparent communication: the bond of thriving corporate cultures

Research has found that team members need to hear feedback, on average at least once a week. This feedback, it turns out, needs to be directly related to how an employee’s job functions affect the organization’s purpose. The challenge with feedback, much as with conflict, is that most people are woefully unskilled at both giving and receiving it. More, we are prone to giving feedback as a reactive response to things that could improve. Want to be truly groundbreaking? Try giving feed-forward: positive, proactive reinforcements for jobs well done. Or if you do stick with feedback, make sure your organization has methods to track and reward behaviours that reflect its core values. 

Uncompromised trust: the missing link in today’s business world

Corporate value statements have the potential to be one of the most powerful tools an organization has. But in order to be more than words on a wall or a blurb in an annual report, they need to be linked to behaviours that are exhibited throughout an organization. If an organization (and its leaders) cannot act in accordance to the values that it purports to believe in, how can customers and employees (indeed all stakeholders) trust it? Charles Green of a Boston-based corporate culture consultancy speaks to the four components of trust: credibility, reliance, intimacy and self-orientation. Contrary to most assumptions, for intrinsic motivation to flourish at work, the last two – intimacy and self-orientation (or how much others perceive our interests as truly being invested in another’s best outcome) – are the most important. 

Collaborative ecosystems: not automatic, but systematic

The sustainable success of most organizations usually rests on their culture: that nebulous, hard-to-define but easily felt “thing” that dictates how work is done. Employees who are engaged at work enjoy cultures that have protocols for defining responsibilities and accountability and systems to positively reinforce both of these. This means having a robust business operating system, something akin to Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits).

The half: being on the balcony and dance floor at the same time

Creating intrinsically motivated teams is not a one-time event; it is a continuous, ever-adapting process. Carefully and artfully leading the constant ebbs and flows of the aforementioned six pillars of leadership is not unlike how a tree is more than its leaves and branches or a painting is more than its oils and canvas. Culture is a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the secret sauce – the artful dance of being both fully participative in and fully observant of your organization’s cultural health and masterfully weaving in any missing ingredients as these ebbs and flows change. 

Casey Miller (, president of Six and a Half Consulting, is a leadership and team development specialist. His consultancy teaches organizations the skills needed to create motivated and inspired workplaces.