Challenges for the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement

Every idea, theory, or even piece of evidence is flawed, or has a weakness, to some extent – even if only perceptually or in minor (non-practical) details. Irrespective of any basis in objective fact, it is to be expected that sometimes the potential and opportunities presented by a way of seeing and experiencing reality instantly connect, while others feel “wrong” at one or more levels. It’s also likely that no single idea or understanding can be complete, or completely wrong.

For example, reinforcement theory (RT) supports an older way of managing, where predictable manager-imposed consequences are attached to effort and actions, without recognition or concern for the needs or concerns of individuals. RT makes the employment relationship very simple, and remains the primary approach for most employment, education and legal reward and penalty practices, especially in larger group numbers. RT’s challenge is that, by being totally extrinsic in nature, it can only require minimal compliance – clock on, keep your head down, clock off, get paid, go home. For basic process-oriented tasks (often now easily mechanised) and a low manager to employee ratio, this approach sufficed, but in high-paced, complex and competitive tasks, it fails to link with the energy and problem-solving, innovative and collaborative capacity needed for success or survival. However, as a species we naturally learn from the reward/loss consequences of our experiences (it is inherent in the mesolimbic dopamine pathway), so RT still has, and always will have, a natural place for shaping future actions, despite its drawbacks, limitations and unfashionability.

Similarly, most theories and models around engagement, management and leadership have strengths, weaknesses and, most commonly, omissions. For example, self-determination theory (SDT), a highly explored, respected and, as far as it goes, accurate and useful understanding of workplace motivation, focuses heavily on two elements and lightly on another, while missing others completely. SDT is not complete but that means it should be discounted – it is still well-founded and useful.

Similarly, this article discusses challenges for the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement, with a view to contextualising some, addressing others and remaining open to new neurobiological and behavioural discoveries and continual refinement.

Conceptual resistance

Understandably, the most common initial objection is a general one – the model doesn’t fit how people see, make sense of, and cope with their workplace demands and stresses. It doesn’t fit what they know, trust and do. This reaction is predicted by the model (it is implicit in the need for empowerment that also sees resistance to change or beliefs that aren’t immediately preferable or self-initiated, and consistent with the myelination.) It also sees people drawing on preferred theories, intuition, approaches or interpretations of past events and current practices – understandable and predictable confirmation bias. This response pattern can be helpful if it allows the sceptical and curious, yet positively-oriented, to think more deeply, to translate concepts and to explore ways of using this information in practical ways that best suit them and their teams. In this way, it is helpful for individuals to prove to themselves through their own research and practice that the concepts are correct, useful and effective (experiential learning is much more effective and natural than listening or reading – Kolb and others have written extensively of this).

Pay is the “real” motivator

There is another, very valid concern – that of transactional employment arrangements, where the perception, and probably reality for those who allow it to dominate their thinking, is that workplace motivation is mostly about tangible goals like money, as well as other “extrinsic” rewards or gains. These might include power, promotions, better or fewer hours, equipment or uniforms, and so on. Whilst the neuroscience dictates that these things are not of primary concern or motivating unless, and to the extent that exists in the minds of individuals and social groups, they are by an individual linked to the satisfaction of his or her basic motivational needs. If they are perceived as important as goals, socially or as part of a belief system, then they are important in and of themselves at that time (although their lone satisfaction is unlikely to be intrinsically fulfilling or supportive of well-being).

For example, money can quickly be linked to survival (safety) in a measurable, tangible and comparable way – people need to have somewhere to live, to eat, and so on. It can also be linked to identity, as a measure of self-worth and social status, as well as a pathway to other symbols of self-wroth and social status. Money can also be linked to empowerment, as being an enabler of control and choice in life, and for direct dopamine release through being able to have and experience things that are in themselves pleasurable. So, is money a motivator? Yes! Is the absence, or fear of loss of money (or its perceived implications) a bigger motivator? Absolutely!  Can money be a tangible reward-symbol linking intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? Clearly!

But money alone, or any other extrinsically-biased reward, struggles to overcome shortfalls in other areas. As identified in SDT, extrinsic rewards see employees do only as much as is necessary to achieve the reward (or prevent the loss), whereas intrinsic motivation sees people do as much as they can, because the drive, choices and actions are so closely linked to the reward. Conversely, a cash bonus for achieving personal sales targets is likely to see individual employees directing their efforts toward sales activities with minimal compliance to other things, while also minimising cooperation, potentially increasing rivalry and increasing base stress so that reduced emotional, IQ regulation and well-being is more likely – this is not uncommon in high pressure sales environments. One has to hope that those employees find some intrinsic reward (i.e., basic need satisfaction) through doing other useful and cooperative things for their own sake to prevent such a workplace becoming cannibalistic and for them to feel meaningful enjoyment.

Money alone can never be “the” reward. For example, how much does someone need to be paid to, for more than a short time, perform unsatisfying, repetitive, dull and meaningless work in an itchy uniform in an unsafe and unpredictable environment with full accountability but no control while micromanaged and excluded from interactions, conversations and activities? And what if it was remotely located with no contact possible with family or friends outside of work? Simply, such a situation would be intolerable, and there is no amount of pay that would see someone last in that situation by choice, let alone perform well, UNLESS it was linked to a greater purpose or specific short-term goals, and then only for that period – for example paying down a mortgage, or financially supporting loved ones, which shifts the focus back to enhancing safety, connection and/or identity in personal life, rather than cash alone.


This leads to another, more useful concept – that of the deliberate, conscious identification of, and commitment to, conscious and tangible goals. It is apparent that individuals set themselves goals, and with varying levels of frequency, commitment and success, act to achieve them without for a moment considering the basic needs identified in the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement.

If, for example, an employee sets out a career path and dedicates themselves to it, it is likely that this will heavily influence their attention and direction of energy, even to the extent that some basic needs may be subdued for that to happen – for example the delayed gratification (choice not to pursue immediate dopamine rewards) of working or studying long hours for a possible promotion at a future time. And there is substantial evidence to support the concept that goal-orientation, especially in delayed gratification, is linked to success in life and career. This leads us to two things:

  1. The purpose and potential of impulse control in the self-regulation network
  2. That the achievement of meaningful goals will, inevitably, result from them being linked, according to the perception of the individual, to the satisfaction of one or more basic needs.

For example, let’s assume someone wants to lose weight. If that idea is mostly extrinsic, superficial and based on demands of, or pleasing, others, it can be expected that the person will perhaps moderate their calorie consumption when others are present, but not when alone. That the diet can start “tomorrow”, as can the exercise plan. That the idea of an hour spent snacking, sipping a favourite drink, watching TV and checking out social media (continual dopamine releases for very little effort) is much more attractive than an hour at the gym. And, despite false starts and feelings of guilt, the diet will fail and the person is likely to be worse off than if they hadn’t attempted the weight loss idea, as they have now had an experience of personal weakness and failure. In itself, this distress is likely to have them seeking more of those short-term dopamine hits, and the cycle continues.

If the idea of weight loss is more intrinsically-oriented, there is a greater chance of goal-oriented self-regulation. Creating immediacy through a definite target – for example losing 4 kilograms in 8 weeks, is helpful as it can be broken down into weekly 500 gram losses, which can be measured and rewarded daily, creating achievement-derived task reward and teaching the brain how to feel that good again. Even better, is safe to do so, losing 4 kilos in 4 weeks increases priority, urgency and commitment, along with task reward as 1 kilo per week is lost. For this to happen, the goal probably needs to be linked to a basic need – for example safety (health), an upcoming physical event or simply a feeling of capability (empowerment), wanting to feel younger or better looking in the mirror or trying on clothes (identity), wanting to be more attractive to one or more others (connection), and simply the achievement of succeeding, and of feeling better from day to day (dopamine rewards).

This same concept applies to challenges in the workplace, where, if the only rewards are base extrinsic ones such as the hours-for-wages transaction, employers can expect only the minimum effort (hours and activity) required with demands for maximised rewards (pay). And if the boss isn’t watching or monitoring activity, he or she can expect very little.   If however an employee is concerned with other things as well as pay and hours – for example seeing themselves as highly competent, professional and productive, they are likely to be self-motivated and self-regulated to do good, satisfying work to the extent they are capable of, and link to that identity. Immediacy is important for motivation-prioritisation, so goals need to have time pressure. Timelines, milestones and feedback replace daily weigh-ins to release regular, encouraging, teaching rewards that maintain goal-focus and effort while reducing the appeal of conflicting impulse-based motivations.

In the end, the goals which are most likely to be self-motivating, self-monitoring, and achieved or surpassed, despite (or perhaps because of) time pressure, effort and obstacles, are those that align with basic need satisfaction AND have been consciously articulated, despite that link not being a conscious one. Notably, employees who are not distressed are more likely to be able to maintain self-regulation of motivation than others as they are less likely to be attracted to the comfort of short-term comforting dopamine hits, highlighting the importance of well-being, in itself relying on efficacy in basic need satisfaction.

 Subconscious needs are subconscious and unique

There are very valid challenges for satisfying, or enabling the satisfaction of, basic needs in the workplace as the pathway to engagement, performance and well-being. Simply, employees, including ourselves, are unlikely to be aware of these needs, or to be able to identify when and how they impact us, and how they influence our emotions and action-choices. And if we do know those things, does that allow us to moderate those influences – or are we driven to satisfying them anyway? These things must be largely unknowable, and in any case must present difficulties when creating workplaces and management practices that need to cater to the wide variations between individuals. However, there are some shortcuts that can be helpful.

  • Exploring, reflecting on and unpacking times when employees have performed to a high standard, flourished and experienced well-being can provide powerful clues to what an individual is likely to want to replicate again, and will without doubt reflect high levels of satisfaction across most if not all basic needs. This is an essential part of our behavioural interviewing technique, providing proven, rather than theoretical, insights into how an individual satisfies their basic needs.
  • Basic need levels can be reliably measured through assessment across basic dimensions. The NEURO-M motivation assessment has proven itself over many years and hundreds of participants, finding that individuals are motivated to remain in their work or, especially in the case of redundancies replicate that environment and role, if needs are well-met. Where needs are not met, perhaps in small amounts for each domain but more often specifically in one or more, employees are restless, unhappy and motivated to either change employer or change their employment situation (whether or not their employer, role or workplace environment itself are the most direct cause for their unhappiness).
  • Allowing individuals as much influence and autonomy, within boundaries, reason and fairness, to satisfy their needs enhances their sense of control and efficacy (empowerment) while seeing them allocating attention and effort to tasks and methods directly linked to basic need satisfaction without conscious intent. If those action-choices are desirable, productive and healthy, then why interfere? If they need modification, then open and collaborative discussions that outline problems yet empower the employee to satisfy needs through different action-choices are ideal, as they can channel that drive in better ways.
  • Despite variances, our research has shown that need levels are surprisingly consistent. This means, for example, that while some people might require more meaningful interpersonal connection than others, the variances are quite small. And when recruiting or assembling teams, awareness of need levels can further reduce variations – for example people recruited for sales roles are likely to experience, and want to experience, more connection than, say, those recruited for engineering roles. Evidence for these preferences is apparent through work history, assessment and conversation – our experience to that clear patterns emerge that allow employers to make fast and reasonably accurate estimations of whether a workplace and role are likely to help an employee to satisfy their basic needs, and so be able to sustainably engage with and flourish in the role.

Daily workplace demands

The test for any theory of workplace motivation, management or leadership is how it can be applied on an everyday basis in the workplace. Rather than a challenge, this is a strength for the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement that is inherent in its concept and design, and is taught in detail through the training modules. Some basic advantages include:

  • It recognises that people are driven to act in the ways they do for reasons they probably don’t recognise or understand, and may not be enhanced by their action-choices – rather, behaviours are most often intuitive, primal reactions to basic-need deficits, irrespective of whether they are appropriate, helpful or productive.
  • It recognises that where unresolvable fear exists, employee engagement rationality, cooperation, selflessness, problem-solving, behavioural management, concentration, accountability and well-being – and ultimately organisational performance, will be compromised.
  • It recognises that employees who experience safe, supportive and purposeful workplace environments are most likely to flourish, cooperate and succeed, and to bring the organisation, its culture and their peers along with them.
  • It recognises that individuals need to experience a preferred identity that can be pursued or reinforced through desired workplace behaviours and performances.
  • It recognises that individuals can be, and in most cases prefer to be, self-directed and self-managed, alone or as a part of a team, and will respond to meaningful challenges and rewarding tasks well if allowed to.
  • It recognises that social needs and structures are natural, and that people will compete or withdraw if those practices, hierarchies and roles are unclear or unstable.
  • It recognises that safety is physical, social and psychological, as well as reliant on feeling the ability to influence or control those things to create safety.
  • It recognises that individuals seek, and will experience significant distress in the absence of, empowerment in the form of knowledge, competence and control.
  • Linked to the above, it recognises that communication, from purpose, vision and values, through to task details, is necessary to motivate and empower employees and prevent gap-filling, sense-making and socially-competitive gossip.
  • It recognises that people are inherently motivated to do things that resolve inner conflict (inconsistency and incongruence), and not do things that cause or increase inner conflict (e.g. compromising relationships, values or beliefs).

Implications for recruitment, induction, delegation and daily management practices, along with a bigger picture for context, purpose and unity, are self-evident. This makes the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement far more practical than most theories of workplace motivation because it is broad-ranging, consistent and capable of implementation in any first-world organisational context.