One of the greatest challenges of our time? How to motivate employees aside from simple compensation models

There’s a profile of Mark Zuckerberg in The Wall Street Journal that’s getting some attention for a couple of different reasons: first off, Zuckerberg doesn’t do profiles very often, so the base idea is rare. Second off, it’s a wide-ranging portrait of a person who had to spend the bulk of his 20s, while an essential billionaire, learning how to run a company (which is inherently fairly interesting). And third off, he talks about the ad model and when he came around on that stuff. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects, though, is the idea that he only wanted to take Facebook public because the idea of offering stock to employees was their best long-range retention plan. When the initial IPO went poorly, here’s what happened:

In public, he tried to play down the importance of the stock price. Mr. Thiel now says the CEO was more worried than he let on, citing the risk that Facebook employees who owned stock might get discouraged and quit. “I care about this because I want to retain my people,” Mr. Zuckerberg told senior executives in a private meeting.

This summer, I worked at a Fortune 15 company. I met with a senior compensation and benefits director while I was there, just to learn more about the models they had in place. It was pretty standard: a series of bands that you progress through, and about three bands past the first time you manage others, you have the ability to get some stock, keep some stock, and — in the words of the director I was speaking to — “this kind of keeps you tethered to us.” So, equity as a motivating factor. I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I’m pretty sure that’s the model upon which Silicon Valley is based.

When you talk to older people who really love their jobs, you get one whole set of things that keep them motivated — challenges, feeling respected, the camaraderie of co-workers, feeling like they’re working on legitimate big problems in an industry/the world. With people that honestly love their jobs, you almost never hear about compensation, which is interesting. It’s almost like the compensation emerged, gradually, from the appreciation for the work. When you talk to rich people on a grind, though, it’s almost always about the money — never about the work and the intangibles.

This is interesting, because there’s about six eons between your grandparents’ generation and your generation, no matter how old you are — world wars, the Internet, legal adjustments, economic and geographic shifts in the world, attitudes about staying at a company for a long time, etc. In the next 50 years, that gap will get wider for current 20-somethings and their eventual grandchildren. Attitudes about work are constantly shifting, even if it can seem like the day-to-day is typically the same. No one knows what it will be like in 10-20 years, much less 50-70.

It seems like, over the past couple of years, companies have tended to flatten wages. This is only logical: companies want to make money, despite what some may say about their true purpose in interviews. The goal is to make money and keep stakeholders happy. People, at a certain level, can be seen as interchangeable. (In some cases, replaceable by machine.) If the trend continues, then the idea of vested equity is going to be reserved for a very small percentage of rapid climbers — i.e. politics is going to play an increasingly large role (larger role) in the development of top personnel at companies. If vesting isn’t going to continue to rise as a motivational technique, then what else is there?

There are a lot of different ideas online. Entrepreneur says “use positive reinforcement.” Forbes notes that creativity of projects actually has a stronger pull than money. Harvard Business Review says it’s about three Ms — mastery, membership and meaning (money is a distant fourth). Business Insider talks about asking questions, as opposed to giving orders. Inc talks about recognition and small rewards.

There are about 16.8 million results on Google for “how to motivate employees,” so clearly it’s a topic with some content around it. (There are 163K scholarly results on Google as well, so academia has embraced the notion too.) Interestingly, it all comes down to a similar set of concepts around how to make schools better: essentially, those in charge need to listen more, empower those they’re working with to individually lead things, praise often, and invest in the “why” of the situation, as opposed to just the “what.” It’s basically a pretty simple formula — people will stay with you if you treat them the way you’d want to be treated and empower them in the process — but it often becomes cluttered by ideas about politics and money and all that.

It comes back to the same way we can prevent tragedies: listen, empathize, and care. That keeps you human. And it keeps your best employees around, which keeps your performance levels high. The stocks and the loot are just carrots at the end of the day (provided there’s a baseline on which you can live).

As the digital wave becomes more prevalent (it’s already within the fabric of our lives, but it will get even bigger in the next decade), the ties between people might fray a little bit — and it might be harder for us to listen and empathize in a world focused on e-mail, social media, etc. This is all a doomsday generalization you’ve likely heard before from people smarter than me, and I don’t fully believe in it either — humans need compassion and companionship, and they’ll continue to seek it out. But I do worry about the way all this affects workplace culture. If it’s all “go-go-go” and “check device check device check device run to meeting,” then we’re going to continue to think that our best motivational tactic is money — but the big guys won’t want to loosen the pursestrings, even for top talent (they’ll want to loosen ’em for the best political player). We need to get back to recognition, empathy and listening in the 9-to-5 world if we want the future of motivation to be bright.

Ted Bauer