How do you motivate employees? Don’t! [ac-sc id="4845"]

How do you motivate employees? Don’t!

Are you truly motivated in your job? If you are, consider yourself among the happy minority. According to the latest studies, no more than 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged at work, while one in four people are actively disengaged. To misquote Thoreau, a staggering number of people lead lives of quiet desperation at work.

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Human motivation can be defined as what moves individuals to take action. This concept lies at the heart of organizational success. Why? Because, in the Western world, a company’s source of competitive advantage is, more often than not, their human potential at every level of the organization, rather than their capital, technological resources, or size.

We know what doesn’t motivate: overly bureaucratic, hierarchical, command-and-control structures that, in the relentless pursuit of efficiency, stifle people’s creativity and potential. Instead, when work contexts allow employees to be empowered and engaged by meaningful work and supportive managers, organizations –and their people-  thrive.

Ask flourishing employees what makes their company a great place to work, and you are likely to hear some of the following:

  • leadership supports employee growth
  • focus on learning and mentoring
  • intellectually challenging work
  • smart colleagues
  • people work together
  • supportive and people-oriented culture
  • positive environment

Positive psychology research shows that most people are naturally motivated to perform at their best, provided their organizational context allows them to optimize their potential. This is really nothing new. In the 60’s, when asked, “How do you motivate employees?” social psychologist Douglas McGregor famously replied that you don’t! He argued that employees are naturally motivated to do great work. The key is to create the conditions for every employee to perform at their best. McGregor’s message appears as valid as it was fifty years ago.

McGregor’s research points out that employees are self-motivated to perform at work, fulfill their potential and crave responsibility. In thriving organizations, the management style is participative and employees at lower levels of the organization are involved in the decision-making process. This style is better suited to knowledge work and professional services that require knowledge sharing and continuous improvement.

This is consistent with more recent findings about human motivation. Leading researchers argue that people have natural tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways. In particular, we are self-motivated to pursue goals and engage in activities that satisfy the following psychological needs:  

  • autonomy 
  • competence (or effectiveness) 
  • psychological relatedness (or connection) 

When these needs are satisfied, we function optimally and grow. Naturally, this needs to happen in a nurturing social environment. Intrinsically motivated behaviors are like positive motivation. They are performed out of personal interest and are inherently satisfying. By definition, they are self-determined behaviors, such as being captivated by a book or a project that is personally rewarding on different levels. On the other hand, extrinsically motivated behaviors, like popularity, money, or status, are instrumental to obtain something else (peace of mind, well-being) or to avoid punishment.

Leaders have a responsibility to put in place the conditions that allow people to thrive. The good news is that a growing number of companies have figured out how to excel at engaging their employees. How do they do that? They put people first and embrace a workplace culture that addresses fundamental human needs for autonomy, relatedness, and achievement that allows people to flourish and become their best selves.

Is your company a great place to work? How could it become one?




Heil, G., Bennis, W., & Stephens, D. C. (2000). Douglas McGregor Revisited: Managing The Human Side of Enterprise. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Gallup. (2015). Employee engagement. Retrieved from

McGregor, D. (1960/2006). The human side of enterprise (annotated edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-67.