Several years ago there was some interesting research on employee motivation that really stuck with me. The conclusions were based on a massive study that involved twenty-six project teams from seven companies, comprising 238 individuals. Each participant filled out a survey at the end of each day, recording their moods, motivation levels, perceptions of the work environment that day, as well as the work they did, the progress they made, and the sense of creative output. The resulting 12,000 diary entries captured many ups and downs and provided a unique look at the inner workings of work-life on a micro-level.
Besides this massive study, there have been many other similar studies over the years, and all of this work points to one very straightforward conclusion:
What motives people on a daily basis is the sense that they are making progress; that is, they are regularly achieving small wins on their way to a meaningful goal.
The obvious question that follows is that given people are most satisfied and most motivated when they are given the opportunity to experience achievement, what can a leader do to maximize the chances that employees are experiencing such an opportunity? Here are the key suggestions that emerge from these studies:
1.) Are their clear short and long term goals leading to meaningful results? There should not be any confusion regarding what specifically the individual should be focused on achieving. Also, robust measures need to be in place to register regular progress. This puts a heavy responsibility on the boss to make sure that impactful work is being pursued and intermediate steps to achievement exist.
2.) Do the employees have sufficient autonomy to solve problems and take ownership of their responsibilities? The villain here is bureaucracy and consensus decision making. If individuals are burdened with tons of meetings, emails, and teams they are required to coordinate with, the situation is ripe for poor morale and low productivity.
3.) Do employees have all the resources required to achieve progress? This includes financial backing, necessary talent, adequate physical facilities, and the ability to acquire un-anticipated necessities as work progresses.
None of this is surprising. In fact, famous management guru Frederick Herzberg in the 1960s constantly preached that the way to motivate employees was to provide them the opportunity to make consistent meaningful progress. What is surprising is how often examples emerge of leaders failing to follow these common-sense ideas.