What Really Motivates Employees (Hint: It’s not carrots or sticks)

What Really Motivates Employees (Hint: It’s not carrots or sticks)

Once you get the “right people on the bus,” (as taught to us by Jim Collins and his best-seller, Good to Great), a leader’s job is to keep them there by figuring out the elixir of intrinsic motivation. Despite overwhelming evidence that traditional methods including a carrot (reward) and stick (reprimand) approach is not effective, an incredible number of companies still waste time and energy on such methods. According to Paul Marciano, Ph.D. and author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of Respect, 40 years of research proves that not only does the traditional reward and recognition programs not work, they actually decrease overall morale.

What Really Motivates Employees (Hint: It’s not carrots or sticks)

In the U.S. workforce, 70% of employees are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work according to Gallup, so management teams are highly motivated to find ways to motivate their employees.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

It’s not ALL about pay, but it is about FAIR pay

If you don’t have a fair pay structure in place, you can kiss any aspirations of motivation good-bye. While increasing pay doesn’t necessarily equate to highly motivated employees, if the basics aren’t in place—fair pay and working conditions and job security—employees won’t be motivated no matter what you do.

Discover what motivates each individual

One size does not fit all when it comes to workplace motivation. As a company leader, take the time to get to know what’s important to each employee and mentor your management team to do that for each direct report. For one employee, getting to leave early for a job well done is a motivator but for another it’s simply a handshake with a genuine, “Thank you! Your contribution was essential to our success.”


Employees have a very real need to be recognized for their contributions. This doesn’t mean they want programs for an “Employee of the Month,” but they do want to know that their work is seen and appreciated by their manager, supervisor or company owner. A quick chat at an employee’s desk to show gratitude and to recognize their specific contributions leads to continued motivation. It’s the personal time and attention from a manager that is the true motivator.


Motivated employees are those that are empowered in their tasks, jobs and to make a difference in the company. Organizations with strict formal processes strangle the motivation of those who wish to make an impact. They give up without even trying because the regulations are set. Organizations also empower employees when they set them up for success with proper training and mentorship to help them achieve their next goal.

A larger purpose in the work

Particularly important to the millennials who we work with, but motivating to all regardless of age, is the knowledge that our work has a larger purpose. People with a purpose are more resilient and focused, so it’s important for companies to be sure their employees understand how the work they do improves people’s lives.

Collaborative working relationships

Employees who feel part of a team and who get to build collaborative working relationships with others in the company are also highly motivated. This sense of belonging to a tribe where you depend on others and they depend on you, keeps the motivation high.


Trust is a foundational component to any relationship and one that is essential for employees to be motivated. When an employee feels that they aren’t trusted to do the job they are getting paid to do because they continue to be micromanaged, it squelches any motivation they have. Those that are trusted to do their jobs are much more motivated.

Supportive feedback

Motivation also increases when employees get supportive feedback. Most employees want to get better and progress in their careers and when a supervisor shows interest and shares ideas on how to improve, most are highly motivated.

A path to advance

It’s important for employees to see a way to advance within a company to continue to stay motivated. If they view their job as a pit stop on the road to another opportunity elsewhere, their motivation will deflate for the job they’re doing.

A culture of self-care

While there are countless companies who offer gym memberships and lunchtime yoga and profess to support work/life balance, it’s incongruent with the impossible expectations and demanding timelines that are consistently required. Companies who truly have the personal health and well-being of their employees top of mind are the companies motivated employees gravitate to.


Employees are motivated by the quest to be the best versions of themselves. They don’t want to be complacent, but want to continually grow and face new challenges. Employers who provide that for their employees help to motivate them.

Motivated leadership

If leadership isn’t motivated, it’s pretty impossible to have motivated employees. If your organization is suffering from a motivation problem, be sure that your company and leadership is sufficiently motivating to inspire its employees. If not, it’s time to reignite the passion.

As always, let me know your thoughts. What would you add to my list? What motivates you?

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Written by

Bernard Marr

Bernard Marr is a bestselling author, keynote speaker, and advisor to companies and governments. He has worked with and advised many of the world's best-known organisations. LinkedIn has recently ranked Bernard as one of the top 10 Business Influencers in the world (in fact, No 5 - just behind Bill Gates and Richard Branson). He writes on the topics of intelligent business performance for various publications including Forbes, HuffPost, and LinkedIn Pulse. His blogs and SlideShare presentation have millions of readers.


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