15 Psychology-Backed Ways to Motivate Employees

How to motivate employees


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Motivation is an elusive beast. Sometimes we’re deeply attuned to it; at other times, just the thought of performing a certain task may seem excruciating. But no matter how nebulous a thing motivation may be, the spillover effect it has on our productivity and overall sense of achievement is quite concrete. 

As defined by Psychology Today, motivation is the “desire to act and move toward a goal,” and it's seen as a crucial factor in a person’s likelihood of attaining their objectives. Psychologists tend to divide motivation into two camps: extrinsic motivation, whereby a person is inspired by outside forces, and intrinsic motivation, in which a person’s inspiration for moving toward a goal comes from within. 

As a manager, you may think that extrinsic motivation is where you may be able to have some say, and that you can (hopefully) use it to ensure your team is engaged and productive. But the presence of certain key factors may make for an environment that’s more hospitable to intrinsic motivation, too. 

Below are 15 psychology-backed ways to create a culture in which it’s easy for employees to feel motivated.

1. Show trust wherever possible.

Research published by Human Resources for Health indicates that a workplace culture in which employees feel they’re extended trust by leadership and from their peers is one in which they’re more likely to feel motivated. Interestingly, the researchers also found that the presence of trust was a key driver of workers’ intrinsic motivation levels, specifically. 

2. Practice positivity.

This one may feel intuitive, but it’s too important not to include. Positivity — and particularly the use of positive reinforcement — can have a major impact on how motivated employees feel, according to Forensic Magazine. If negativity abounds in your office, it’s hardly surprising that employee motivation may similarly be a pain point. 

3. Have an open door policy.

When employees know they have the freedom to approach company leadership with whatever’s on their mind, they’ll feel they have a greater say in what happens in their professional lives. Both the implicit sense of agency and trust in a company’s transparency that brings can have a favorable impact on employees’ engagement and performance, according to the Neuroleadership Institute.

4. Allow for authenticity. 

Workers who have permission culturally to bring their full, authentic selves to work are less likely to experience feelings of resentment and repression, both of which have a negative impact on motivation levels. A study published by Frontiers in Communication found that “high levels of authenticity at work relate positively to more intrinsic types of motivation… moreover, high levels of authenticity should be associated with higher well-being at work.”

5. Start a mentorship program. 

In a summary of 30 years of research, SAP SuccessFactors found that workers who have been mentored feel more committed to their careers, receive a greater number of promotions and are more likely to believe they’ll continue advancing in their career as compared to workers who haven’t been mentored. A mentorship program can have an especially fruitful impact on the careers of women, as well, since they often have a smaller number of natural role models who’ve ascended the ladder as compared to men.

6. Break with routine. 

According to research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the feeling of a fresh start is a clear psychological motivator. As a manager, you can create this sense of “newness” by planning a team off-site, for example, in which workers can break from the monotony of their day-to-day routine and have a chance to feel refreshed and re-motivated.

7. Have a career-laddering system, and share it.

A career ladder makes transparent the process and criteria needed for a worker to be promoted, as well as giving them a clearer sense of what direction they’ll be promoted toward. These types of ladders have, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, been proven to “have a direct impact impact on the entire organization by improving morale, career satisfaction, motivation, productivity, and responsiveness in meeting departmental and organizational objectives.”

8. Don’t simply tolerate flexibility. Encourage it.

As many a working parent will tell you, having access to flexibility and work-life balance is a game-changing motivator to stay invested in one’s job. But the benefits of flexibility are, of course, felt by more than just those with children. One study from Ultimate Software found that 90% of remote workers report feeling “very productive,” and they’re also 40% more likely to have been promoted in the last year compared to their in-office peers who may be experiencing less flexibility.

9. Let the people laugh.

Alison Beard, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, has reported on the positive effects of laughter on employees’ morale and motivation, saying that laughter “boosts engagement and well-being, and spurs not only creativity and collaboration but also analytic precision and productivity.”

10. Create regular rituals of public recognition. 

According to Gallup, only one in three U.S. workers agrees that they’ve received recognition or praise for doing good work in the past week. If an employee feels their hard work is going unnoticed, that has a direct impact on their likelihood of staying motivated — in fact, respondents who felt unappreciated were more than twice as likely to say they’ll quit in the next year. Gallup’s researchers added that “his element of engagement and performance might be one of the greatest missed opportunities for leaders and managers...Recognition not only boosts individual employee engagement, but it also has been found to increase productivity and loyalty to the company, leading to higher retention.”

11. Compete, but in a non-toxic way.

Let’s face it. As a human species, competition is a motivator that’s biologically built into us. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a negative one, and it also doesn’t explicitly have to do with work, according to a mental health writer for Fast Company. By hosting a fun competition at work, like a trivia night or by taking your team to an escape room, the reward centers of people’s brains will be activated in a way that could spillover onto their sense of motivation at large.

12. Help make health and wellness a priority.

Although it can be hard to feel motivated to go to the gym, once we jump the initial hurdle and make a habit of it, our brains become intrinsically motivated by the idea of more exercise. That’s a phenomenon many of us have probably personally experienced, but science also objectively backs it up, including in one study published in BMC Psychiatry. To help your employees feel motivated, try offering wellness benefits and incentives that’ll help make them become more motivated people, in and out of the office. You could also start providing a supply of healthy food at work so that employees’ motivation and energy levels aren’t zapped by sugary snacks.

13. Make feedback a regular, two-way street.

An article published by Entrepreneur Magazine identified “honest feedback” as a significant motivator for employees, saying: “Most employees want to be recognized, to be contributing members of a winning team, we've found. And to achieve such recognition, they need feedback. But, in our experience, many managers find giving frequent, meaningful feedback difficult.”

A once-per-year annual review isn’t sufficient enough feedback to keep employees engaged and motivated. Instead, there should be regular, built-in opportunities for both giving and receiving feedback at your organization. That’s because a worker who knows their voice has an outlet for being heard is a more motivated worker, too.

14. Offer individual attention.

It can be hard to stay motivated if you only ever feel like a cog in a machine. Individualized attention wherever possible is often seen by educators, including those at the Association for Middle Level Education, as a key instrument in cultivating students’ interest and motivation to perform well in school. Such a statement can also be applied to managers’ relationship to their employees. Whether by having regular one-on-one meetings or by offering individualized praise, let your employees know you notice them.

15. Don’t underestimate the value of rewards.

This list wouldn’t be complete without a mention to perhaps the ultimate psychological motivator: reward. A wealth of research exists linking the “reward centers” of our brains with our ability to feel motivated and to perform. Not only that, but certain studies suggest that rewards need to be more frequent and for smaller tasks — i.e. not simply reserved for an end-of-year bonus — to truly be an effective motivator. 

One study found published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people who received more immediate and regular rewards for completing small tasks reported a greater interest and enjoyment in their work, compared to those whose rewards were only doled out at the end of a long project. So, as a manager, don’t assume that one big reward a year is enough to keep employees feeling engaged. Sustaining motivation is a constant task. 


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