What is motivation?

As we saw in the section entitled Employee Engagement there is a potential overlap between engagement and motivation. However I believe it makes sense to examine employee engagement as being relevant to groups of people and motivation in the context of the individual. So what is individual motivation in the workplace?

As you might expect, a trawl of the Internet throws up various definitions from which we can choose; but we can reasonably say that someone is motivated at work when they willingly give of their best (or something close to it). The word 'willingly' is key here. If you have to hold a gun to their head or dangle a big financial carrot for a specific result then I would argue that that is not true motivation. It might get you the desired result in the short term, but an individual who is clearly threatened or bribed would not (in my book) qualify as being motivated. Motivation happens when someone wants to do something well for its own sake.

Motivational theory

There is no shortage of theories out there that attempt to explain workplace motivation and 'how to do it'. In my experience the most relevant and practical approach is based on the work done by psychologist Frederik Herzberg. Herzberg's work is still regarded as the benchmark by many and will serve us well as we seek to become skilled in the critical area of motivation.

Herzberg conducted extensive research, the result of which was his idea that there are things that if they are wrong, demotivate people in the workplace; and that there is a completely separate set of things that if present, motivate people.


He found that things that demotivate people, once fixed, do not result in a motivated individual. Their removal however leads to a ‘blank canvas’ that allows for the separate set of potential motivators to be brought into play. He also found that there was limited benefit in trying to introduce the motivating factors if the individual was currently frustrated by one or more demotivating factors.

Herzberg named the potential sources of demotivation or dissatisfaction as ‘Hygiene Factors’. This may sound rather odd, but we don’t need to get bogged down in the label. He discovered that the things that are likely to cause dissatisfaction are centered on the conditions under which work is done. This list is not exhaustive, but gives a clear indication of the sort of things we are talking about:

The potential 'demotivators' or dissatisfiers

  • Company policies and procedures

  • Quality of supervision

  • Pay

  • Working conditions

  • Technical issues affecting the work

  • Relationships at work

The conclusions were clear. If an individual believes that some or all of these things are 'bad', then he or she is likely to feel frustrated and negative to the job to a varying degree. It is also the case that he or she is unlikely to be in a position where he/she could feel motivated until or unless these sources of dissatisfaction are fixed. So resolving any potential issues in the demotivators list is a priority but will not in itself result in a motivated individual!

Having dealt with the potential demotivators, Herzberg defined the list of things that if present, motivate people and lead to job satisfaction. I call them the ARMIG list:

The potential 'motivators'

  • A sense of Achievement

  • Recognition for work well done

  • Meaningful and interesting work

  • Increasing responsibility in the role

  • Personal Growth at work

It's important to make sure we understand these terms.

A sense of achievement

The individual experiences a strong sense of doing well at work, either continuously or through a series of individual successes.

Recognition for work well done

The individual receives plenty of thanks and recognition for work well done, through managers, peers, customers etc.

Meaningful and interesting work

The job is designed to be interesting. The individual understands where his or her work fits in and why his or her contribution matters to the overall result. He/she receives plenty of feedback on his/her contribution, and on the results of the collective enterprise as a whole. He/she is listened to.

Increasing responsibility

The individual is given more authority and responsibility as knowledge and experience grows.

Personal growth

The individaul is growing, both at work and more broadly. He/she is encouraged and helped to develop.

Employee motivation graphic

Copyright: <a href=''>trueffelpix / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Carrot being dangled on a stick

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Uses of motivational theory

So how do we apply this in the workplace for the benefit of the individual, the team and the organisation?


Firstly, remember that if there are ‘dissatisfiers’ in the way, you are unlikely to make much progress with 'motivators'. It doesn’t mean you don’t work on the list of motivators, but the individual is likely to continue to dwell on his or her perceived problem or ‘dissatisfier’. You need to address the elephant in the room with the individual so that he or she no longer believes it to be an issue. You may change perceptions, or you may change the situation, but you need to fix it to get to your ‘blank canvass’.


To do this you need to make sure that:

  • Workplace policies and procedures are sensible, enlightened and proportional

  • People enjoy effective, supportive and encouraging supervision

  • People’s pay and benefits are perceived to be fair and reasonable

  • The working environment is as pleasant as could reasonably be expected

  • The resources and equipment that people rely on to do their work are readily available and in good condition

  • People enjoy the camaraderie and support of colleagues


Secondly, you need to approach the potential satisfiers or motivators in a systematic way, and so help to create job satisfaction. To do this you should create a simple chart for each of your people with a list of the motivators (ARMIG) down the left hand margin. Now assess the situation for each of them in turn, noting down where the individual is likely to be in their mind (not yours!). Here are some of the questions you could ask yourself:


  • To what extent is Jim achieving?

  • Is achievement a regular feature of Jim’s work life?

  • Are we looking for opportunities where Jim can do well?


  • How much recognition is Jim getting around here?

  • When was Jim last praised for anything?

  • Does Jim know how much we appreciate his efforts?

Meaningful & interesting work

  • Does Jim understand how his contribution really matters to what we do?

  • Does Jim get regular feedback on his contribution and performance?

  • Does Jim know what’s going on around here and how we are doing?

  • Are Jim’s thoughts and ideas heard?

Increasing responsibility

  • Is Jim’s level of authority and responsibility a fair reflection of his ability and trustworthiness?


  • Is Jim growing in the job?

  • Could Jim take on more?

  • Are we helping Jim to grow as an individual?

The motivators:
  • Achievement
  • Recognition
  • Meaningful & interesting work
  • Increasing responsibility
  • Growth

Managing motivation

You can see that thinking through and applying motivational theory at work is going to require effort and discipline. Many of the points discussed in the section on Employee Engagement apply to groups of people. In the same way, many of the potential dissatisfiers or demotivators discussed above will affect groups of people, not just individuals. Your organisation should therefore be capable of taking up a collective approach to these issues.

But the motivators (ARMIG) do need to be assesed in the context of the individual and that is the responsibility of his or her manager. Whilst it may seem a little odd to create an assessment and action plan relating to an individuals 'motivators' and subsequent job satisfaction, I cannot see any other means of addressing this important topic in a methodical and structured way.

The job satisfaction plan

So let's explore how to create a plan with an individual that will help to ensure that he or she enjoys his or her work as much as possible and grows in the job.

Firstly, don't be shy or embarrassed to discuss the important topic of motivation and job satisfaction with your people! You should have no problem explaining that as their boss, you are acutely interested in their performance, their job satisfaction and their development. You should therefore be having regular discussions with your people on these three critical topics, once a month is probably ideal for most people, but no less frequently than that.


Performance Management is dealt with elsewhere on this site. So let's apply the motivational theory that we talked about above and look at job frustrations, satisfaction and personal development.

Firstly, get into the habit of scheduling a monthly discussion with each of your people. At this discussion you are going to talk about their performance, their job satisfaction and their development. Get these meetings into the calendar for the forthcoming year- an hour each time should do it. And as is pointed out elsewhere on this site, if you can't find an hour per month for each of your direct reports, then you probably should not be managing them at all.


The sequence for the discussion is as follows:

1. Performance

How is he/she getting on in the job? See the section Performance Management for the detail.

2. Job frustrations

Are there any demotivators or dissatisfiers (as discussed above) that are getting in the way of good performance? If so, deal with them. It may be a case of changing perceptions, it may be a case of doing something to make it better. It may also be a case of explaining when and how the issue will be addressed, even if not today. But remember to keep your promises!

3. Job satisfaction

To what extent is this person experiencing job satisfaction as represented by the list of motivators (ARMIG) as set out above? Where there is a gap, what can be done? Here are some examples:


Discuss how the person's performance or output has improved. That should be a source of pride. If it hasn't, discuss how it could improve and agree a plan.

Discuss how he or she could contribute more by getting involved in an additional activity, such as joining a work group to find ways to improve productivity.


This one could well be down to you, their boss! Do you take the individual for granted, or are you constantly looking for opportunities to thank and recognise his or her exceptional effort? How about calling out great performances at a weekly team briefing? How about a weekly star performer?

Meaningful and interesting work

Look at his or her job. Does the individual know where his or her contribution fits in to the overall result? If not, help him or her to understand by arranging visits to other departments. He or she can then brief colleagues about what's going on elsewhere in the organisation.

Look at extending responsibilities, for example creating a team lead for health and safety, taking responsibility for customer visits to the department, putting together an induction plan for new starters etc.

Is communication all that it should be? Do people know what's going on? Are there regular team briefings and discussions? Are people being asked for their ideas and contribution?

None of these activities are substitutes for doing 'the regular job' well, but it should be possible to increase involvement and engagement and make jobs more interesting. The Victorian idea that you are paying simply for a pair of hands is gone, these days you need people's full mental involvement in the undertaking if you are going to get the best from them.

Increasing responsibility

Is the person's growing experience and ability rewarded with reduced supervision and greater freedom to make decisions?

Do you have a system in place whereby individuals of proven ability and experience are recognised with a higher grade or bigger job title and/or more money?

Personal growth

How is the individual developing at work? To what extent is the organisation encouraging and supporting his or her personal growth? You should not neccessarily have to throw lots of money at the issue, but (for example) supporting someone through a course of study and then asking them to become the depatmental 'expert' on a particular topic could prove beneficial to all. And that course of study is a joint effort - the company pays and the individual puts in the study in their own time. Or how about reading a few books and then presenting on the topic to colleagues? How about if the company pays for the books and the individual studies them and creates a precis?

Use the attached worksheets to help you through the process.

Demotivators and dissatisfiers checklist
Employee motivation score sheet

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