Don’t Stop Here

How Employee Motivation is Shaped by Company Culture

This article is inspired by an article published in Harvard Business Review written by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi.

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Business leaders believe a strong organizational culture is important to success. However, culture is yet perceived as an unmeasurable force that only some know how to control. In reality, the majority of managers will manage culture in accordance to their intuition rather than based on specific measurables that can guide their decisions.

To help in the transition of culture from a mystery to a science, three questions can be answered:

  1. How does culture drive performance?
  2. What is culture worth?
  3. What processes in an organization affect culture?

Answering these questions helps determine how to foster a high-performing organizational culture and measure impact on the bottom line. In this article, we will focus on the first question: How does culture drive performance?

How does culture drive performance?

Based on a survey with more than 20,000 workers from around the world, 50 major companies and reviewing academic research in a variety of disciplines, one conclusion can be made: Why we work determines how well we work.

One study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization from 2013 illustrated this well. Almost 2,500 workers were asked to analyze medical images for “objects of interest.” One group was told that the work would be discarded and another that the objects were “cancerous tumor cells.” The workers were paid per image analyzed. The second group, the “meaning” group, spent more time on each image, earning 10% less, on average, than the “discard” group. However, the quality of their work was higher. The conclusion is that reshaping the workers’ motive resulted in improved performance.

In the academic world, why people work is no new subject of research. In the 1980s, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan reached a breakthrough in their studies. They mapped six main reasons why people work: play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia. Many researchers have since found that the first three motives tend to increase performance while the latter three hurt it. This means that companies which maximize the good motives and minimize the bad ones have a great culture and ultimately a great performance.

  • Play is the motivation which comes from the work itself. The reason you work is because you enjoy it. Teachers enjoy the activities of teaching, creating lesson plans, grading tests and getting through to each student. Play is the learning instinct and is connected to our curiosity, experimentation and a feeling of exploring new challenging problems.
  • Purpose is when the outcome from the work fits your identity. The impact of your work is the reason you work. A teacher is driven by purpose values or identifies with the goal of educating and empowering children.
  • Potential is when the outcome of the work benefits your identity. A teacher may want to become a principal in the future and thus the motivation for work is based on progress and enhancement of the teacher’s potential.

These three motives are directly connected to the work itself and can therefore be seen as direct motives. To different degrees, they will improve performance. However, indirect motives tend to reduce it.

  • Emotional pressure is when you work because an external force threatens your identity. Fear, peer pressure and shame are forms of emotional pressure. If you do something to avoid disappointment, you are acting on emotional pressure. This motive is completely separate from the work itself.
  • Economic pressure is when you work to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. The motive is not only separate from the work itself, it is also separate from your identity.
  • Inertia is when the motive is so far removed from the work and your identity that you can’t explain why you work. If you work simply because you did it yesterday and the day before that, it is a clear signal of inertia. It is still a motive because you are doing the actual activity, you just don’t have an explanation as to why.

These indirect motives have a tendency to reduce performance since you are no longer thinking about the work. You are thinking about the disappointment or the reward, or why you even bother to work at all. This distraction means that you may not care about the work nor the quality of the outcome.

In essence, a high-performing culture maximizes the play, purpose and potential of the people in the organization and minimizes the emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia. This is called the total motivation (ToMo). You can calculate your ToMo or your team’s ToMo here.

It is thus clear that employees’ motivation plays an important role in the organization and ultimately the company’s overall success. Senior management can build and maintain a high-performing culture by teaching managers to lead in highly motivating ways. CEOs should make a business case for culture and enlist HR and business leaders to improve the elements that affect culture.

Here are three actions team leaders should take to start improving the total motivation of their employees:

  1. Hold a reflection huddle with your team once a week. The meeting should last one hour and each person should answer three questions directed at encouraging 1) Play: What did I learn this week? 2) Purpose: What impact did I have this week? And 3) Potential: What do I want to learn next week?
  2. Explain the why behind the work of your team. Often, you engage in projects because it will help your customers. So, one way to go is to be specific in explaining what impact it will have on the customer.
  3. Finally, encourage your employees to suggest process improvements and ask if everyone has the opportunity to witness the impact of their work.

Bonus: Find out where each team member would like to be in two years and come up with a plan to help them reach their potential.

It is not easy to build a great culture and this is why it is of great competitive advantage to have a high-performing culture. More organizations are beginning to realize that culture can’t be left to chance and that leaders have to treat culture building as a science and not as a magical force only a few can master.

Primary sources: HRtechX & Harvard Business Review

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