Skip to content

The science of motivation: 5 simple fixes for team engagement

Too many companies fail to recognize that “the deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated” — but the solution is easy.
Two men in business attire, demonstrating team appreciation, one holding a coffee cup and the other using a laptop, set against an abstract geometric background.
Agustin Farias / Unsplash / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Many organizations seem perplexed or even agnostic about employee motivation.
  • The common thread connecting research into motivation is our desire for autonomy.
  • Leaders can follow five simple steps to ensure scientifically grounded employee motivation.

Explaining our disposition to work has two major dimensions. However, neither is widely understood or practiced. Many organizations seem perplexed or even agnostic about employee motivation. For companies genuinely intent on understanding how to make their workplaces better, who are open to questioning the overused and ineffective tropes about employee engagement, there is reason to be optimistic. 

What’s particularly puzzling is that companies’ confusion about what drives employee motivation exists despite the growing body of scientific research. The foundational research of psychologists Abraham Maslow and, later, Frederick Herzberg has blossomed over the past 75 years. Today, we have a sophisticated picture of what creates a great workplace. 

Absolute and relative motivation

A useful way to think about motivation theory is that it is both absolute and relative. Maslow, for example, theorized that we are all motivated by five sets of escalating needs. As we conquer our primordial needs we look toward fellowship, self-esteem, autonomy, and ultimately the elusive self-actualization. Later David McClelland suggested we might think of our work motivation as being driven by just three things: power, achievement, and affiliation. 

Try Big Think+ for your business
Engaging content on the skills that matter, taught by world-class experts.

Herzberg complemented Maslow’s work. His research underpinned the notion that once our basic needs are met there is a rapidly diminishing utility for more. In other words, we can only breathe so much air or eat so much food. From a work standpoint, Richard Easterlin’s research proved that these same principles apply to salaries. Happiness is simply not correlated by increased pay above a threshold.

This research is often viewed as an individual (or absolute) pursuit for meaning and self-improvement. However there is a very important comparative (or relative) dimension. We do strive to move upwards in Maslow’s pyramid but we can be derailed by perceptions of inequity. Steve Jex’s research demonstrated that much of our job satisfaction is derived from how we perceive ourselves against others. There is an extraordinary experiment conducted with two Capuchin monkeys where one is given cucumber and the other grapes. The resulting tantrum is a powerful illustration of how we react to perceived injustice. 

Interestingly, this relative dimension cuts both ways; if we feel slighted, a powerful emotion distorts our view of our job, boss, and the overall company. Our cup becomes half-empty. However, if we experience a shared positivity, everything is lifted: Our cup becomes half-full.

Autonomy and flow

The common thread across all the science is the presence of autonomy: some level of self-determination. This is often the secret ingredient. The opportunity to be able to make choices, to test oneself, to face a challenge, and be given the opportunity to “become the best we can be.” This desire for autonomy is currently played out in the return to the office tug of war. Psychologically speaking, we are very reluctant to give up free choice. 

The concept of “flow” was coined by Robert H. Frank to describe the completely immersive, consuming, and rewarding state we can experience, where time, effort, and reservoirs of energy merge into a zen like feeling.

Better by technology

So, given this compelling evidence for what really matters, why don’t more companies put it into action? We think the main obstacle is inertia; the cumulative dogma, ceremonies, and traditions of 100 years of predominantly administrative focus. Work has classically been a necessity for people. Consequently, employers have managed to survive while paying only lip service to genuine employee-friendly practices. There is also a lingering belief that fostering a great work environment must cost a lot of money. Or that there is a risk of pandering to employees’ wish lists.

We reject these excuses. In large part, they are caused by confusing traditional benefits and physical office amenities with the substance of motivation science. In 2024, there is a growing awareness of what really matters in a job. The “great resignation” was a warning shot. Gen Z, in particular, are more interested in authenticity and substance at work than previous generations. Moreover, the pursuit of a great place to work needn’t be expensive in financial terms. The cost is more intangible and requires companies to make effort in dimensions that may have previously languished. 

Here are five simple steps you can follow if you want to be a scientifically grounded employee-motivation advocate: 

  1. Get the foundation right. Offer competitive pay, benefits, and work environment. To be clear, this doesn’t need to be more than anyone else. It does, however, have to be competitive and constantly refreshed.
  2. Pay attention to the work itself. The first of the big blind spots is not paying attention to how much time employees get to spend on creating, building, imagining, and working with customers. More importantly, the most motivated employees will have the space, power, and authority to make a difference. An important distinction here is not allowing chaos or a “wild west” environment. Objectives should be agreed collectively and embraced widely.
  3. Fairness and transparency. Do not offer grapes to some and cucumber to others. It sounds simple but we guarantee every company currently will have this wrong. The best way to expose inequities is to be transparent. Companies who strategically open their pay, performance, and promotion processes for everyone to see will ultimately reap benefits.
  4. Be authentic. For some reason we still live in a world where management teams and HR functions declare initiatives that are either superficial or two-tiered. The biggest single action companies can take to improve employee motivation is simply being authentic. Above all, pay attention to the quality of management and swiftly get rid of “bad apples.”
  5. Purpose and cause. The presence of an appealing overarching aspiration for a company can inspire and motivate. All employees — but particularly Gen Z — want to be able to link their work to helping solve a consequential problem. Think about and communicate how your company is making a meaningful contribution to society.

One size does not fit all

Writing about human motivation and the workplace requires some measure of generalization. The trouble is that we are all different. We all have different needs, tolerances, and preferences. Carl Jung famously offered personality types as an explanation for this. 

Individuals will have a spectrum of preferences for their work. Some may relate to work only as a means to an end, others in the belief that it’s the very essence of who they are. Regardless, the science still holds true. Wherever we sit on the spectrum of introvert versus extravert, of thinking versus feeling, the framework we offer will still benefit you. As William James said “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”

Unlock potential in your business

Learn how Big Think+ can empower your people.
Request a Demo