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What Motivates People At Work?

Monday 19 May, 2008
Employees have higher expectations of how they want to be treated at work. They don't just want a job that is secure and paid well; they want a job that gives them high levels of job satisfaction - and if their present employer doesn't provide it, they will be tempted to search for one that will.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs identified five levels of need and postulated that it was only after the needs on Level 1 were satisfied would that person focus on satisfying those needs on the next level.  The five levels are:

  1. Physiological - food, water
  2. Safety - protection, security, stability
  3. Social - affection, friendship, acceptance
  4. Ego - prestige, success, self-esteem
  5. Self-actualisation - self-fulfilment

So what does motivate people at work who are at Levels 3 and 4 of Maslow's Hierarchy?

Research in this area goes back to the late 1800s with the studies of Frederick Taylor, the Father of Scientific Management.  Taylor's focus was on productivity but his experiments showed that productivity was optimised when Level 2 needs were recognised.  Good working conditions (at the time, expectations weren't that high), permitted rest periods and work safety were all taken into account by Taylor, in contrast to the Dickensian conditions that were associated with the industrial revolution.

Then in the 1920s came Elton Mayo and the Hawthorne Experiments, which revealed the significance of human relations in organisational behaviour and how productivity could be enhanced if employers sought to satisfy needs at Level 3.

In 1959, Frederick Herzberg published his book - The Motivation to Work - where he advanced the notion of "satisfiers" and "motivators". Once again, one can see the connection between these two sets of factors and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  According to Herzberg's findings, pay, benefits and working conditions do not motivate.  They only dissatisfy if inadequate.  The motivators are recognition, achievement and responsibility.

Australian Fred Emery refined Herzberg's concept of motivators and satisfiers.  He came up with a list of twelve factors of motivation as follows:

Extrinsic Satisfiers
Basic conditions of employment

Intrinsic Motivators
Conditions for high job satisfaction (and engagement)

  1. Fair and adequate pay
  2. Job security
  3. Benefits
  4. Safety
  5. Health
  6. Due process
  1. Variety and challenge
  2. Headroom for decision-making
  3. Feedback and learning
  4. Mutual support and respect
  5. Wholeness and meaning
  6. Room to grow and develop


The research of Emery and others demonstrated that extrinsic satisfiers and intrinsic motivators both needed to exist if motivation and job satisfaction were to reach high levels. One could not compensate for the other.

Furthermore, they also concluded that the first three intrinsic motivators had to be optimised for the individual. For example, too much responsibility or challenge can cause stress and anxiety.

Results from feedback surveys we've conducted over many years are analysed under nine different categories, as follows:

  1. Company goals, values and strategy
  2. Quality and process improvement
  3. Decision-making and participation
  4. People performance
  5. Occupational health, safety and the environment
  6. Customer orientation
  7. Communication
  8. Structure and work relationships
  9. Equity and rewards

The key motivational areas are decision-making, communication and some aspects of people performance. 

Here are the lowest rating statements for a typical survey:

Lowest rating statements


My efforts are sufficiently recognised

Equity and rewards

I understand where the company is going and how it is going to get there

Company goals, values and strategy

I am encouraged to develop my capabilities

People performance

We are sufficiently informed about decisions that affect us

Decision-making and participation

Rewards are allocated in a fair way

Equity and rewards

I regularly receive helpful feedback about my work

People performance

Team work is used in all workgroups

Structure and work relationships

There is trust and cooperation between workgroups

Structure and work relationships

We are sufficiently involved in decisions that affect us

Decision-making and participation

We are sufficiently consulted about decisions that effect us

Decision-making and participation

We are sufficiently involved in decisions about broad company matters

Decision-making and participation

Communications between workgroups is good


Communication about Company performance is good



The feeling of being "in on things" is a particularly powerful motivator and no one has expressed it better than Jan Carlzon, the former president of Scandinavian Airlines in his book "Moments of Truth".

"There is no better way to sum up my experience than with the story about two stone cutters who were chipping square blocks out of granite.  A visitor to the quarry asked what they were doing.

The first stone cutter, looking rather sour, grumbled, "I'm cutting this damned stone into a block".

The second, who looked pleased with his work, replied proudly, "I'm on the team that's building a cathedral".

A worker who can envision the whole cathedral and who has been given the responsibility for constructing his own portion of it is far more satisfied and productive than the worker who sees only the granite before him. A true leader is one who designs the cathedral and then shares the vision that inspires others to build it."


So what does this mean for businesses today? As we can see, the issue of staff motivation has been around for hundreds of years, and what was applicable then, is still applicable today. The difference is that now employees are demanding job satisfaction.

To create truly motivated staff, that will be more productive and ultimately be of bottom-line benefit to the company, businesses must focus on intristic motivators, especially those of communication, decision-making, participation and feedback.

Author Credits

Graham Haines is principal consultant of Plans To Reality. Graham has a Joint Honours Degree in Law and Economics from Durham University and a Grad. Dip. Ed from Melbourne University. He is both a Certified Management Consultant and a Certified Practicing Marketer. In addition to his consulting activities, Graham has taught marketing and management at a tertiary level and written over 150 articles for specialist press and his own web site. He can be contacted via Email: ghaines@planstoreality.com.au or Visit: www.planstoreality.com.au
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