Where Does Motivation Come From?

Categories: Employee EngagementAuthor:

I am struck by how often I hear clients describe an employee as a lazy or unmotivated person, only to find out that the person they are talking about runs marathons, owns a successful side business, and has seven well-adjusted children.

In other words, many of these so-called lazy employees have demonstrated higher levels of motivation in some other part of their life.  We are not destined to a predetermined amount of motivation in all situations.  Our motivation is dependent on the situation and the activities involved – the local environment.

If you think about it, you can probably relate.

Most of us can think of some tasks or activities that we aren’t motivated to do and others that we are highly motivated to engage in.  Ask yourself, what was it about those tasks that make you feel motivated or unmotivated?  Often times, it is related to the amount of reinforcement we get while engaging in those tasks.  We tend to like tasks that provide a lot of feedback, allow us to spend time with people we enjoy, or produce a positive outcome.

Here are some examples of activities many people are motivated to engage in:

Playing a musical instrument – produces a lot of feedback in terms of the sound, is often difficult to produce a nice sound, and may allow us to spend time with friends or receive admiration

Checking and sending email – there are almost always new emails that appear when you check, you get responses to emails you have sent, it feels like you have accomplished something when you send an email

Building stuff – produces a useful outcome, we get lots of feedback on how well we are doing based on appearance and function, and we may receive admiration for our effort

Now translate that to work.  Is your lazy employee suffering from  poor colleague relationships, a lack of feedback on their work tasks, or just a bad boss?  Is there an aspect of their job they really enjoy that they could spend more time on? What does the employee want out of their job? Do you even know?  Have you had that conversation?

I could quite honestly write several more pages about this but that wouldn’t be appropriate for a blog post, so I will leave you with this:

The next time you observe an “unmotivated” employee, instead of blaming it on genetics, look at the local environment for both the cause and the solution.

4 Responses to Where Does Motivation Come From?

  1. Michael Sofis (reinforcingmike) says:

    This is a wonderfully concise blog on reinforcement in terms of employee motivation. The little experience I’ve gained so far in OBM has made me look to more simple ways of making work reinforcing for employees.

    I think organizations too often look to implement glamorous performance pay interventions instead of making the work process itself slightly more reinforcing.

    I think Google Inc. accomplishes this when it gives many of it’s employees 15% of their work week to work on any personal ideas they have. A large portion of their high revenue creations (e.g. Google Chrome or Gmail) have been implemented. This activity itself is likely reinforcing and probably has positive supplementary effects in their other work during the week.

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks, Mike!

      You make a good point. You don’t need an elaborate pay-for-performance scheme if the work itself is reinforcing. Work becomes more reinforcing when people feel like they have the skills and time to do a good job, they have enough control over their work to do well and complete it in a way they enjoy, they get opportunities to learn and develop, they get recognized for success, obstacles get removed quickly, etc.

  2. Don Kernan says:

    Sometimes, a workers motivation is strongly impacted by their co-workers. One example recently came to my attention: a production worker, who had been experiencing excess absenteeism, changed departments. Their attendance immediately improved as did their “happiness” on the job. Turns out, they disliked working because of the attitude of others. As managers, we need to be on the watch for negative mini-cultures within our work place environment. When frontline supervisors ignore hard to manage situations, we reinforce the wrong side of the equation.


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