1. Meek, Julie A. PhD, RN, CNS

Article Content

Motivation comes from within a person, and each person has his/her own reasons for setting motivation into motion. While leaders are not responsible for another person's motivation, leaders are largely responsible for creating work cultures that encourage people to be productive and creative. This column describes key ways leaders can create work environments that help people perform at their best and in turn optimize chances for the success of the entire enterprise.


Getting the Balance Right

Starting around 2000, Dr Hank Gardner, a physician, and Dr Wendy Lynch,1 a researcher/statistician, came together to answer the question: What are the key drivers of employee performance? They worked together for 10 years to generate data from many companies covering nearly 1 million workers from diverse industries and geographic locations across the United States. By statistically comparing different groups of employees and companies, Lynch and Gardner1 were able to provide convincing statistical support that, with thoughtful design of compensation and benefits, companies can have more productive workers, more successful business, lower expenses, and increased employee health and wellbeing.1 For example, if employees do not have the opportunity to earn more than 10% of their income as bonus or profit-sharing income connected to the accomplishment of aligned corporate goals, the company can expect to see up to 30% lower productivity and nearly double the turnover in top performers. If companies do not have combined vacation/sick time policies with less than 100% pay for extended absences, those employers can expect up to 25% higher avoidable benefit costs when compared with employers with such policies.


Employers need to balance in creating benefit plan and corporate policies to serve both the employer's and employees' interests. When policies serve the interests of only 1 party, lower performance and higher costs ensue. Instead of pleading, scolding, or cajoling people into performing on the job, employers would be better served by creating incentives and cultures that help employees work productively. Incentives can include recognition, promotion, flexible work hour or location, leadership opportunities, and educational support. The smart employer uses all of these incentives as levers in balancing the needs of both the company and its employees.


Another good resource for entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs is Jim Collins'2Good to Great, in which he reported findings similar to those of Lynch and Gardner.1 By examining 28 matched-controlled companies, half of whom made the leap from a good company to a great company, whereas the other half lagged in business performance, his research team identified 5 key determinants of greatness, one determinant being that great companies create a culture of discipline. Collins2 noted that disciplined people do not need hierarchy; disciplined thought does not need a bureaucracy; disciplined action does not require excessive controls. Instead, combining a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship tends to result in a "magical alchemy of great performance."2 Collins2 used the performance analogy of an airline pilot, settling into the cockpit, checking controls and flight paths, working with traffic control, monitoring the weather, and so forth-all activities consistent with a system designed to ensure a safe journey for all persons on board the aircraft. Yet on final approach, the plane encounters stiff crosswinds, and the pilot decides to abort the landing and wait until winds permit a safe landing. While the system is designed to be consistent with clear constraints, it is also designed to give the pilot freedom and responsibility to accomplish the ultimate goal. The important feature in such a system is that the leaders then manage the system, not the self-disciplined and motivated people doing the work.2


The rewards inherent in getting the balance right are huge. Collins'2 findings showed that companies embodying principles of greatness generated cumulative stock returns that beat the general stock market 7 times over 15 years and doubled the results delivered by index funds reflecting the world's greatest companies.2 Clearly, a company's leaders can use policy and benefit designs to create alignment between the company's objectives and the employees' performance, but how does a leader set employees' motivation into motion on the frontlines of the business? Daniel Pink,3 an experienced leadership consultant, encapsulated it well when he stated: "If you really want enduring motivation, you have to do things in your company that go with the grain of human nature rather than against it."


A Bit More About Incentives

Starting with the task of making one's own bed in the morning, nearly all of us have grown up with if-then incentives, meaning that there is a predictable response for an action-if you do this, then you get that. As 50 years of social science research demonstrates, if-then incentives work well when the actions, or work, are circumscribed. Pink3 noted that for the employer wanting employees to be creative, generative, and productive more enduring motivational principles need to be tapped. Pink3 wrote that an entrepreneur can get maximum performance out of a workforce by asking: (1) Am I paying people fairly, and am I paying people well? (2) Am I providing sufficient room for autonomy and self-direction in what people do, how they do it, when they do it, and whom they do it with? (3) Am I allowing people to make progress each day and get better at something that matters? And (4) do the people inside of my company know why they are doing what they are doing, not merely how to do it?3 Tapping into the motivating principles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose is key to setting employees' motivation into motion.


Setting Autonomy Into Motion

The notion of "management" was, according to Pink,3 developed in the 1850s and has long outlived its usefulness as a leadership behavior. No one likes to be "managed." What companies need are engaged employees, which means hiring the right people and having agreement on goals, then allowing employees the freedom to design how the goals are achieved. A great mechanism for creating autonomy is the "dialogue session," a far better way to promote worker autonomy than a formal performance appraisal. A dialogue session is a discussion between an employee and the leader, led by the employee. The topics for the session include describing personal goals and incentives, reporting on last quarter's goals, creating next quarter's goals, identifying barriers to success, and providing feedback to the leader. The employee leads the sessions and begins by sharing aspects of the work that really drive zeal for the job while identifying opportunities to increase job satisfaction. A wise leader, fully aware of all of the full scope of work, taps into each person's identified passions and places a worker into new opportunities that will allow the employee to meet new challenges. Employees then report on their prior individual and team goals. The leader and employee discuss and celebrate what went well and investigate what may have prevented accomplishment of a particular goal. The leader and employee agree on goals accomplished, tie this performance to a periodic bonus payout, determine individual and team goals, and assign a bonus percentage based on the scope and complexity of the goals. For this process to work, leadership needs to define strategic aims for the quarter before individuals and teams meet to ensure that goals are aligned with the strategic quarterly aims. Once goals are mutually defined and action steps agreed upon, the employee has the opportunity to identify any supports needed from the leader. Next, the employee has the opportunity to lead a discussion about barriers that may impact productivity or success. It's important that system-level operational or cultural barriers are identified and plans for resolution created. Finally, the employee provides feedback to the leader. A helpful algorithm to follow is for the employee to discuss behaviors they wish their leader would start doing, stop doing, and modify as a way to engender a growing dialogue and partnership between them.


Setting Mastery Into Motion

Another impressive study was conducted by 2 Harvard Business School researchers, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.4 By sending e-mail to 238 workers across 7 companies at the end of each work day, they obtained information about the worker's day including level of motivation for the day and factors that affected motivation. They found that the most profound motivating factor for people was the employee's perception of doing meaningful work. The researchers also found that the more frequently employees felt a sense of progress; the more likely they were to be creative and productive over a longer time. A catalyst for productivity was an employee's sense of their inner work lives, that is, when they feel happy, have positive regard for their leaders and colleagues, and are intrinsically motivated by the work itself. Tapping into people's dreams and passions, as well as hunting down and openly discussing barriers to success, is important in keeping people motivated in their work environments. Leaders' actions can trigger inner work life happiness and increased productivity. Leaders who ignore cultural and operational barriers to success or use fear, intimidation, and compliance tactics are stifling employee motivation and hurting the bottom line.


Setting Purpose Into Motion

Closely tied to mastery is a worker's sense of the work's purpose and link to the mission of the company. Pink3 pointed out that many employers spend too much time telling employees what to do and how to do it and too little time explaining why the work is important. Employees are eager to understand how and what they do matter to the company, the customers, and the beneficiaries of the company's products and services. Too often, workers never hear about the successes, both small and large, and how their work was integral to a successful product, service, or corporate goal. Celebrating success goes a long way toward creating meaningful, rewarding work and yet is often an overlooked tool in an entrepreneur's tool kit. Work is tied to a person's inner sense of purpose-that need we all have to help others, to make a difference in the world, to master a skill, to learn something new. Wise leaders understand what is important to employees and look for ways to link employees to projects that tap into the inner purpose and then celebrate in a way that makes visible their contributions. Working to both the company's purpose and to each employee's inner sense of purpose produces unimaginable results.



Both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs have reason to create work cultures that propel people to do their best and most satisfying work. Using the principles described herein can help balance employees' interests with the interests and success of the company. Alignment sets employees' motivation into motion through autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their work resulting not only in business success, but also in happy, healthy, and productive employees as well.




1. Lynch W, Gardner H. Who Survives? How Benefit Costs Are Killing Your Company. Cheyenne, WY: Health as Human Capital Foundation; 2011. [Context Link]


2. Collins J. Good to Great. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc; 2001. [Context Link]


3. Pink D. Leadership and motivation. Accessed July 12, 2015. [Context Link]


4. Amabile T, Kramer S. The power of small wins. In: Harvard Business Review. Accessed July 12, 2015. [Context Link]