95 percent of managers don’t understand motivation

I’ve written about topics akin to this a few different times — for example, 82 percent of managerial hires are probably the wrong one and intrinsic motivation isn’t really that well-understood and maybe leadership’s focus should be on empathy — and now here’s another context. Apparently, 95 percent of managers don’t understand what motivates people at work:

In a wide-ranging study of employee motivation, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer asked hundreds of employees to maintain a diary chronicling their peaks and valleys in motivation at work. Amabile and Kramer eventually analyzed 12,000 diary entries in total and what they discovered was totally contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy and conventional managerial wisdom.

In fact, Amabile and Kramer talked with 600 managers about what they thought was the single-most important motivator for employees at work. A shocking 95% of them got the answer wrong.

It’s not money, safety, security, or pressure that drives employees at work. It’s not the supposedly foundational needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.

The most important motivator for employees at work is what Amabile and Kramer call “the power of small wins“: employees are highly productive and driven to do their best work when they feel as if they’re making progress every day toward a meaningful goal.

This aligns with the above idea around leadership’s focus being on empathy. People are at their best when they feel like they’re working towards a goal that they have some personal alignment with. In fact, you can make one tiny change to the standard on-boarding process and increase engagement significantly — via the same logic.

This all seems like a pretty drastic fail, to be honest.

Most workplaces are designed around a few simple ideas — meeting to meeting to call to call to don’t really do work, just appear busy — but from a motivation/advancement standpoint, people (managers) typically assume the primary motivating factor is money. (I think in these studies, 95 percent of managers assumed that was the primary motivator.) For some people, it is. No doubt.

But often when people leave a job, they say “relationship with manager” or “overall communications/politics,” not “offered more money elsewhere” (and in fact, some people quit jobs without other jobs lined up).

Think about a typical workplace, then:

How the hell do companies make money, anyway? Is it predominantly luck, or is it just that people don’t matter?

Ted Bauer