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Employee Engagement

Employee motivation: a research roundup

By Kelly Craig on June, 3 2016
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Kelly Craig

When labour was plentiful & jobs were scarce, the fear of being fired might have kept employees motivated & the workplace humming. 

But in a world where talent is a precious business asset, motivating employees is more complicated—and more important—than ever before. What can the research tell us?

In the past, motivating employees must have seemed like a very simple task. In one hand, you dangled the carrot, which was the promise of more money. In the other, you held the stick, which was the threat of getting fired.

Today, the stick is less fearsome, as an organization’s power to dismiss employees has (very rightly) become more tightly controlled by legislation that protects employees from unfair practices. But the carrot, too, is less straightforward.

Money is no longer the clear winner: in fact, it’s now one of the least compelling elements when it comes to employee motivation. A survey by FlexJobs found that one in five people would take a pay cut to enjoy more flexible work options, and an employee job satisfaction report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) showed that respectful treatment and trust were the most important factors in job satisfaction, regardless of compensation levels.

If money and prestige don’t inspire employees to get up every morning and give it the best they’ve got, what does? This round-up of the latest research sheds some light on this critical—but often misunderstood—area of talent management.



People like to feel needed, included, and trusted by the group, and this source of motivation can be leveraged very effectively in the workplace. TINYhr, an HR app developer, conducted a survey of 500 organizations and 200,000 respondents and discovered that a desire to drive team success is the single strongest employee motivator.

Helping their peers and enjoying the camaraderie that this fosters is the number-one reason that employees cite for going the extra mile at work.



A study of 500 employees in Ireland conducted by audit, accounting, and consultancy group Mazars revealed that a lack of praise was the top demotivating factor, with 59 percent of demotivated employees citing a lack of praise and acknowledgement from their bosses as the reason behind their disengagement at work.

This echoes the TINYhr survey, which uncovered that fewer than one in four employees (21 percent) feel strongly valued at work. Conversely, building in processes that regularly recognize and celebrate the contributions employees make and the results they achieve can help to boost motivation.



A recent study of crowdsourced work suggests that that creating a strong sense of purpose around work can enhance workplace motivation. In the experiment, two groups of workers were given the same task to perform, but returned drastically different results depending on the perceived importance of the work. Both groups were instructed to analyze a set of medical images and told they would be paid for each image analyzed.

But while one of the groups was told their work would subsequently be discarded, the other group was told their work would help to identify instances of cancer.

The result? The group that believed their work was connected to vital cancer research spent more time on each image and delivered higher-quality work—despite the fact that this meticulous approach impacted their earning power.



A five-year study by Towers Watson looked at high-performing companies that outperformed their peers both financially and in terms of employee motivation and satisfaction. The study identified a number of dimensions that these high performers shared, including “open, supportive cultures that encourage new ideas.”

By practicing tolerance and encouraging diversity, these organizations built healthy corporate cultures that fostered employee trust, respected employee contributions, and kept the workforce engaged and motivated.

Motivating employees requires more than a system of tangible rewards and financial compensation. Humans are complex, and the factors that motivate them to work hard and take risks on behalf of their organization are equally complex.

However, research suggests that building strong, close-knit teams, taking the time to recognize employee contributions, and creating a culture of inclusiveness can go a long way towards keeping employees motivated and satisfied in the workplace.


Supporting motivation with competencies

Some of the transformational leadership and general competencies that can help to support a motivational workplace include “Team Leadership,” “Ensuring Accountability,” “Inspiring Others,” and “Embracing Diversity.”

Learn more about leadership competencies.