What motivates people to work hard? We used to think it was money, but most of us now realise that this is not always the case. Is it flexibility to choose how and where they work? Is it a fun working environment with free ice-cream and beanbags? All of these?
After researching employee motivation for over 20 years, I have come to the conclusion that there is no simple answer. Like anything to do with people, it is complex and cannot be condensed into a single guideline. But that is not to say that we cannot do anything about it.
Instead, our research suggests that we need to personalise employee experiences. Everybody has a set of interconnected goals, what we call a goal hierarchy. This includes their values: life-long goals, such as status, being helpful, and so on; identities: how they see themselves, such as parent, leader, etc; medium-term and maintenance goals: such as work-life balance, project goals; and day-to-day task goals. The important thing is that these goals are connected to each other like a neural network. When the benefits hook into a densely connected positive pathway, then employers are going to have a happy and productive employee who wants to stay. But if the benefits do not relate to any of the connected goals for a particular person, or if they are negatively connected, then they can backfire; just think of an employee passionate about the environment and reducing consumption who is given a shopping voucher.
So, what can employers do? First, self-awareness is essential. As researchers we have a tool to facilitate this awareness, but the basics can be achieved relatively easily: training employees to identify their long-term goals and to think about how their current tasks and benefits are related. Second, help them to overcome negative connections, for example, can they modify the task? and build positive connections to tasks that are not connected to the higher-order goals. Third, ensure their list of employee benefits relates to a wide range of values and identities and communicate these connections so that people can see how they could fit their individual goal hierarchy.
Our research has demonstrated again and again that a personalised experience that supports their unique goal hierarchy is the biggest benefit an employee can have.
Dr Kerrie Unsworth is a professor in organisational behaviour at Leeds University Business School