Figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to employee motivation can be difficult.
According to a Gallup report, only 2 in 10 employees strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.
To rectify that, employers often seek out motivation ideas that may sound easy or appealing at first, but whose premise seems shaky when you look further. Here are a few of the most common employee motivation myths that we’ve found don’t hold up to investigation.
1. Money is the greatest motivator.
Undoubtedly, the most prevalent myth about employee motivation is that the only kind that really matters is the monetary kind. And there’s some truth to it—employees want to be paid fairly for the work they do, and some employees do find motivation in financial incentives.
But you may be surprised to learn that in most cases, money doesn’t buy motivation. According to a study of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation by psychologist Edward Deci and colleagues, extrinsic rewards often lead to diminishing returns on intrinsic motivation.
To understand what this means, let’s break down what extrinsic and intrinsic motivations are. Extrinsic motivation is when our behavior is motivated by an external source. Examples would be studying to get a good grade on a test, hitting the gym to look good for swimsuit season, or taking on an extra shift in order to snag a bonus at work. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when our behavior is motivated by our own inner desires. A good example of intrinsic motivation is learning to play an instrument because you like the process, not because you’re seeking approval or a reward—you just enjoy doing it.
The study tells us that while extrinsic rewards can motivate us to complete more monotonous tasks, we derive more value and enjoyment from complex work when we’re intrinsically motivated to gain mastery and become more skilled.
So while a performance bonus or rewards program at work can spur momentary motivation, long-term employee motivation more often comes from our own internal desire to be better at our work.
2. Feedback boosts employee motivation.
You’ve probably heard before that employees want, nay, crave feedback, especially younger generations like millennials and Gen Zers. But what we usually think of as “feedback” may not actually be helpful when it comes to employee motivation.
As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall outline in an article for Harvard Business Review, there are a number of factors affecting the way we give feedback, including our own internal biases, our limited ability to measure abstract attributes in others, and the misconceived notion that we can apply rigid standards of behavior to all individuals and expect the same results.
So not only is the feedback we give not entirely accurate, but it’s also not in line with how we as humans actually learn and grow. Receiving negative feedback generates a fear response and sends our brains into fight or flight mode. Our focus becomes survival, rather than listening and understanding the feedback we’re receiving. In comparison, when we hear positive feedback, our brains relax and are more cognitively, emotionally, and perceptually open.
While it’s still important to point out and rectify mistakes employees make, you’re more likely to help them achieve excellence, rather than adequacy, when you present feedback in a positive manner. Highlighting and encouraging their strengths instead of pointing out their weaknesses will make a larger, more lasting effect on their future performance.
3. Employees are motivated by fun perks.
We’ve all heard about the cool perks and benefits companies like Google offer up to employees, like lunches cooked up by professional chefs, massage chairs, ping pong tables, and other toys and gadgets. These perks are given out with the idea that the more fun and enjoyment employees have, the more driven and productive they’ll be when it comes time to actually work.
Expensive perks like these are certainly nice, but do employees actually want and expect them in their workplace?
To find out the answer, Fractl, a content marketing agency, surveyed 2,000 U.S. employees to find out which benefits mattered the most to them when considering one job over another. What ranked at the top wasn’t the cool perks—it was the benefits that centered around employee health, wellness, and work-life balance.
Eighty-eight percent of the survey respondents answered that “better health, dental, and vision insurance” would be something they gave some or heavy consideration to, followed by more flexible hours, more vacation time, and work-from-home options.
Having a healthy work-life balance, free time to spend with family and friends, and the means to seek out care when you’re sick do far more to improve morale and productivity than a foosball table or catered meals do. This isn’t to say that having some fun perks isn’t a good idea, but don’t try to use the fun stuff to make up for the lack of flexibility or health benefits that employees actually want.
When it comes to finding out how to motivate your employees, the most successful methods will revolve around what your employees actually value and need. Not every employee is motivated the same way, which means there’s no blanket approach to unlock their potential and boost their performance.
The best way to start motivating employees is by taking the time to talk with them and listen to them to determine what you can change, add, or remove in their work lives to give them the ability to perform at their very best.